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Thursday, April 6, 2006 09:46 pm

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Quick — someone take up collection so legislators can afford new shoes

Pity our lawmakers. Public officials are underpaid and overworked. The House and Senate are practically sweatshops. Given the paltry paychecks politicians receive, citizens should be worried that qualified folks won’t run for public office. And the problem goes way beyond the Legislature: The governor, prosecutors and more than 100 other officeholders and bureaucrats also are getting shortchanged. It’s just not fair. So says the state Compensation Review Board in a report issued last week. The board says that high-ranking state officials have actually seen double-digit pay cuts since 2002 as a result of the rising cost of living. Not a single state official under its purview is overpaid, according to the board, which recommends pay adjustments for public officials. The board unanimously recommended raises for 113 offices while saying that salaries should remain the same for seven jobs. Aside from four judicial posts, the director of the newly created Department of Juvenile Justice, and the secretary of the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, directors of ethics commissions for the legislative and executive branches shouldn’t get raises, the board says. “The present state of affairs is unacceptable,” says the report, which was published on April Fool’s eve. Not so, says Chad Fornoff, executive director of the Executive Ethics Commission and one of the few who wouldn’t get a bump under the board’s recommendations. “I have no complaints about my salary,” says Fornoff, who makes $90,000 a year. Tie votes, apparently, are not envisioned on the 12-member compensation board, which is made up of unpaid members selected by legislative leaders. Although the board is subject to open-meetings and open-records statutes, getting someone to comment or provide agendas or meeting minutes isn’t easy. Board chairman Kevin Forde, a Chicago attorney, didn’t return two phone calls last week from Illinois Times. David Ellis, the board’s lawyer, also did not return a phone call. After numerous attempts, Illinois Times found someone in the House clerk’s office who had a copy of the board’s report. It was available at a counter in an office on the fourth floor of the Capitol building, behind a door bearing a sign reading “House Employees Only.” House Speaker Michael Madigan’s office also faxed a copy after the paper requested one. In the case of elected officials, the board recommended raises of 9.3 percent, still not enough to keep up with inflation since 1999, when lawmakers last got a raise, according to the report. This being an election year, lawmakers can’t distance themselves fast enough. Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, the Republican nominee for governor, have both said that they do not want, nor will they accept, a raise. On Tuesday, a half-dozen House members sponsored a resolution rejecting the raises. If the Senate does the same and both resolutions pass, the proposed pay hikes will die. Since 2000, legislators have rejected three raises proposed by the Compensation Review Board, which makes recommendations every even-numbered year, when elections are held. Still, lawmakers, at a base salary of $57,619 (plus a $102 per diem during sessions), aren’t doing too badly compared with their counterparts in other states. State legislators in Illinois, where sessions typically last four months each year, are the fifth highest paid in the nation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Legislative paychecks go far enough that a dozen senators and 26 representatives describe themselves as full-time legislators in biographies published on the General Assembly’s Web site. The number may be higher: Twenty-eight senators, for instance, don’t list any job or other source of income aside from their legislative posts. Just 15 senators and 43 representatives clearly state that they have jobs outside the Legislature, which has 177 members. Until she closed her law office last year, Sen. Adeline Jay Geo-Karis, R-Zion, worked as a lawyer when she wasn’t attending to state business. At 88, she’s entitled to slow down a bit. When she first ran for the Legislature, in 1972, not a single lawmaker put down “full-time legislator” in his or her official state biography. Geo-Karis says it’s now a full-time job — she works 40 hours a week throughout the year as a legislator — but still had time to practice law. “First of all, I work fast — I don’t waste time,” she says. “Between the law office and the Legislature, I worked at least 80 hours a week.” In its report, the Compensation Review Board practically begs lawmakers to accept raises for themselves and appointed bureaucrats, saying that the lack of salary increases is “cause for serious concern” as the gap between public- and private-sector salaries grows. “It will become increasingly more difficult to attract the best and the brightest candidates as the difference grows between what a state official earns and what that person could earn in the private sector,” board members write. “The Board’s recommendations run to the office, not the officeholder. Nothing prevents the officeholder from refusing the salary increase.” Recognizing the political difficulty of accepting raises in an election year, the board suggests that the Legislature change state law so that future board recommendations are made in odd-numbered years. However, if Springfield-area elections are any indication, there is no shortage of folks willing to make deep financial sacrifices so that they can work for what the board considers peanuts. In the 99th District, for instance, Springfield Ald. Chuck Redpath quit a state job that paid $71,292 a year to run for the Legislature. He lost the Democratic primary last month to Sangamon County Board member Sam Cahnman, a lawyer who spent more than $70,000 of his own money in the campaign. The Illinois Legislature long ago crossed the bridge from part-time to full-time, says Charlie Wheeler, director of public-affairs reporting at the University of Illinois at Springfield. And until 1967, the Legislature met every other year, according to the state archives office. The move to annual sessions helped spell the end of a part-time legislature composed of citizens instead of true politicians, Wheeler says. “I think we’re better off with a professional legislature,” he says. “It’s a complex state. It’s a diverse state. It has serious problems. It’s better than having amateurs every other year for a few months.”
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