Cloonen: Dem lawmakers suing over paychecks taking 'principled' stand
While outgoing Illinois Comptroller Leslie Geissler Munger’s paycheck policy was decidedly unwelcome among many state legislators, her successor, Susana Mendoza, apparently will not deviate much from Munger’s policy, to the dismay of Democrats — including outgoing state Rep. Kate Cloonen (D-Kankakee).
A cadre of lawmakers, Cloonen among them, made a point of filing a lawsuit against Munger on her final day in office, Dec. 5 — not to recoup unpaid funds, but to protest after the fact.
Filed in Cook County by six plaintiffs -- state Reps. Emanuel “Chris” Welch (D-Hillside), Lisa Hernandez (D-Cicero), Mary Flowers (D-Chicago), Sonya Harper (D-Chicago), Silvana Tabares (D-Chicago) and Cloonen -- the action is intended “to restore legislators’ pay and end unwarranted political pressure … by Gov. Bruce Rauner and Comptroller Leslie Munger.”
The half-dozen legislators were all paid, along with the rest of the Assembly, in August after a three-month delay, under Munger’s well-publicized policy to treat lawmakers like other state creditors.
“Our lawsuit is a principled stand for an independent legislature that cannot be bullied by any governor, Republican or Democratic,” Cloonen said. “The 177 members of the General Assembly are elected to serve the people of our districts, but the comptroller’s and the governor’s actions show they believe we are elected to serve them, and that they can use illegal means to force us to bow to their extreme agenda.”
Munger’s reasoning held that elected officials should not be paid ahead of hospitals, human service organizations, small businesses and other vendors that make up the state’s list of creditors. Her strategy served to illuminate a divisive boundary etched among Illinois lawmakers, with some agreeing to take one for the team and others objecting publicly.
Mendoza, a Democrat who represented Illinois’ 1st District as state representative for a decade prior to serving as Chicago’s city clerk, won the position in the Nov. 8 election, defeating incumbent Munger by five percentage points.
Notably, Mendoza indicated previously that she intended to continue withholding the lawmakers' paychecks unless ordered to do otherwise by a court. Additionally, Mendoza said she would not accept her own $136,000 annual salary, doing little to legitimize the Democratic group’s last-minute lawsuit against Munger.
Born of the state’s inability to come to terms with a failed budget for two years running, Munger’s response and her solution to the paycheck issue are only some of the many facets of life impacted by the state’s recent woes, but the issue is highly visible as last month’s election results effect changes on the state House and Senate floors — bringing a change of personnel and a potential influx of new perspectives.
"Today, our state has more than 126,000 unpaid bills totaling more than $10.3 billion, and our office is paying invoices dating back to June 17," Munger said at a recent press conference in response to the litigation. "That means vendors throughout the state are waiting six months or more for payments they have been promised.”
Breaking down the math behind the state’s debt load, Munger said Illinois ended October with only $10 million in available cash, with an outstanding $8 billion in bills.
"(Yet) these lawmakers are going to the court to ask that they receive preferential treatment and get paid first,” Munger said. “Literally every dollar counts in our ability to fund critical services — and there are no words for my disgust and disappointment with this lawsuit."
In what amounted to an attempt to legitimize their stance after the fact, the half-dozen representatives took their case to court over delayed funds after it was clear that Munger was leaving office. Munger commented on the action as she prepared to depart her post.
"Their action comes eight months after I implemented a policy requiring that all state elected leaders — myself included — be treated just like everyone else," she said. "How cowardly and self-serving that while they refused to challenge my action while I was in office, they are now going to court when there will be a new administration led by one of their own."
Munger clarified via her statement that Illinois’ precarious position was not created by the current or even most recent administrations.
"As a reminder, the problems we face today are decades in the making,” Munger said. “It does not help to promise funding to any group when there is no money to write the checks. It is imperative that we pass a balanced budget — and instead of filing lawsuits, I encourage lawmakers to return to Springfield and do their job so that the state can meet its obligations, and everyone is paid on time."
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