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State

OUR VIEW: Pulling the plug on pay raises during a pandemic

It’s been a touchy subject for decades for Illinois lawmakers – how to boost their annual pay without looking greedy.

Burned by a post-election pay hike more than four decades ago that spawned a citizen uprising and passage of the Legislative Cutback Amendment, lawmakers set up a Compensation Review Board to propose salary increases for them. That eventually fell by the wayside, and annual pay hikes are now accomplished simply as automatic cost-of-living increases that happen each year with no formal vote.

This hasn’t stopped minority Republicans from trying to prohibit pay hikes, as they did during the recently completed four-day emergency session in Springfield.

Times are tough. The coronavirus pandemic has closed many non-essential businesses. Layoffs elsewhere contributed to Illinois’ jobless rate skyrocketing from 4.2 percent in March to a record 16.4 percent in April, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. In that one-month span, more than 760,000 jobs were lost.

The state is reeling from lost tax revenue, not to mention the tragic human toll: more than 114,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 5,000 deaths as of midweek.

State Rep. Charlie Meier, a Republican from downstate Okawville, introduced House Bill 5777 on May 15 to prohibit cost-of-living pay increases for representatives, senators and statewide elected officials.

“With less revenue for state government and record unemployment, it makes zero sense for the legislature to give themselves a pay raise and spend money the state doesn’t have,” Meier stated on his website.

His bill would have negated pay raises of $1,600, effective July 1, 2019, and $1,800, effective July 1, 2020, by reducing salaries by about $3,400. According to Ballotpedia, an Illinois lawmaker’s base salary is $65,836.

We say “would have negated pay raises,” because Meier’s bill, which had more than 40 co-sponsors, was assigned to the House Rules Committee and never brought to a vote.

State Sen. Sue Rezin, a Republican from Morris, shares Meier’s concern over pay increases during a pandemic, saying the Democrats who lead the House and Senate “showed a shocking lack of awareness” amid the current crisis.

“Lawmakers send the wrong type of message to their constituents by passing a pay increase during a global pandemic,” Rezin said in a statement.

Not to worry, according to Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza. No pay raises will be paid by her office, she declared Wednesday.

The reason? While the state’s approximately $40 billion budget contains no specific language prohibiting pay raises for legislators, it appropriates no additional funds for raises, so she’s not paying lawmakers any additional money come July 1.

Good for her. And good for minority Republicans for raising the issue in the first place.

In times like these, there is no excuse for anyone in the legislature, or any government position, to take a pay raise of any kind.

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