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Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017 12:10 am

Hard times

Lawmakers struggle without pay

PHOTO BY ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

 

If you’re a state employee worried about Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s attempt to cut off pay due to the lack of a state budget, consider the plight of legislators.

The comptroller’s office has just sent out June paychecks to legislators who were last paid in August. Due to the state budget impasse, Leslie Munger, the former comptroller, last spring put legislators’ paychecks in the state’s burgeoning pile of unpaid bills, saying they should wait to get paid just like others to whom the state owes money. Paychecks received by lawmakers in recent days was for work performed in June, and Comptroller Susana Mendoza says she’s going to continue withholding pay until the state passes a budget.

How have legislators made ends meet? It hasn’t been easy. Just ask.

While there are whispers of lawmakers loaning themselves money from campaign accounts, legislators contacted by Illinois Times say they’ve kept their hands off campaign cash. They say they’re not complaining, but they also say that making do without getting paid for as long as five months is as tough for lawmakers as it would be for anyone else.

Rep. Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, R-Leland Grove, who took a pay cut when she left her post as chief of staff for First Lady Diana Rauner to become a lawmaker in 2015, said she’s had to dip into savings. She also said she’s well aware of public opinion when it comes to pay for Illinois legislators, the fifth-highest-paid state lawmakers in the nation.

“This is, obviously, something we don’t talk about publicly – the general public has their opinion about legislator pay,” Jimenez said. “We obviously have had to be very tight with our household budget. I’ve never been in a situation in my life or career where I work parts or all of every day and not get a paycheck, or, at least, it’s delayed.”

State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, doesn’t expect much sympathy.

“Honestly, I’ve come to the conclusion that no one cares about the personal financial plights of legislators,” Manar said. “Voters have other things to worry about. … I’ve been doing what any family has to do in a situation like this. It hasn’t been the easiest thing in the world.”

Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, is facing a double whammy if all state employees get cut off, given that his wife works for the state. With a mortgage and car payment to make, Butler said that his savings account has taken a hit. He said he’s considering taking on part-time work, perhaps as an Uber driver, which would allow him to set his own hours while still representing his constituents.

“I’ve given that some thought,” Butler said. “It gives you a flexible schedule.”

Butler wouldn’t be the first lawmaker turned Uber driver. State Rep. Jaime Andrade, D-Chicago, started work as an Uber driver last summer. He said he’s also gotten licensed as a business license expediter in Chicago to help folks get building permits and otherwise negotiate the bureaucratic maze in city hall. He said he once provided such help for free, but that doesn’t pencil out anymore.

“If someone calls me now and they’re not in my district or they’re not anywhere in the city, I just tell them, ‘I’m more than willing to help you, unfortunately, at this point, I’m charging for my services,’” Andrade said.

Andrade said he’s also enrolled in graduate school, both to get a master’s degree in accounting and to take advantage of student loans that provide for living expenses. With two kids at home and a mortgage to pay, he said he’s burned through his savings, and his wife, who once stayed home with the couple’s children, has gone back to work.

“I’ve never complained about it,” Andrade said. “It’s only fair. There’s social service agencies that aren’t getting paid – they can’t pay their employees. I, at least, know that one day I will get paid. I have constituents who have lost their jobs because of this budget impasse.”

Figuring out how to balance the household budget has been a challenge, Andrade said.

“Me and my wife sat down and we literally said ‘What do we cut?’” Andrade said. “We went down to over-the-air television and just internet. You literally have to line by line and start cutting. … When we go to the grocery store, there’s nothing organic. We switched to Aldi. Everything has to be cut. There’s no extras. You buy the essentials. It’s stressful for the whole family. I don’t wish this on anyone.”

Andrade said he’s heard that some lawmakers are borrowing from campaign accounts but he won’t do that. Tom Newman, director of campaign disclosure for the Illinois State Board of Elections, said that his staff advises lawmakers not to touch campaign money to tide them through tough times, but he acknowledged that the law isn’t clear.

“There may have been one or two (legislators) that raised the question, I don’t recall who it was,” Newman said. “Based on our reading of the law, there does not appear to be an outright prohibition against it.”

Lawmakers who established campaign funds after 1998, when state law changed, can’t use campaign funds for personal expenditures, Newman said, but they can make loans to themselves or hire themselves to do work for their campaign committees. Newman said that his staff advises lawmakers who borrow campaign money to draw up loan agreements that include repayment terms and interest rates.

“The short answer is, we don’t tell them they can’t do it,” Newman said. “But we generally recommend that they don’t do it.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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