Illinois Senate rejects pay hikes

Lawmakers upset with gov for attending fair instead of meetings
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. They're dealing with a number of issues, including school funding and the governor's slimmer, $25 billion capital plan. LateTuesday, the senate did reject a nearly 14 percent pay hike for lawmakers and elected officials.

But continued feuding and disagreements could make getting any more work done very difficult.

The session comes about a month after the house rejected a plan to expand gambling in the state. That measure would have provided a major source of money for the governor's larger capital plan.

But some lawmakers say they simply don't trust Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to do what he promises.

In Springfield, the impression is that nobody likes nor trusts anybody in this dysfunctional political environment, which makes it very hard to pass anything, let alone big, complicated, multibillion-dollar plans for school funding and for infrastructure repairs.

So with the exception of the showdown vote on the controversial issue of legislative pay raises, this is a special session that's not likely to be very special.

The governor called Tuesday afternoon's special session to pacify senator and South Side minister James Meeks, who was threatening a student boycott of Chicago's public schools until state lawmakers provide additional resources to struggling school districts. But according to Meeks, Blagojevich also has to make good on a re-election promise in 2006 to pump billions of additional dollars into public education.

"He made a promise in 2006 that he had an idea to fund education to the tune of $10 billion. So I'm anxious today to hear what his ideas are and how we're going to fund education adequately," Meeks, (D) Chicago, said.

The governor also called the special session to put pressure on the Illinois House to approve a scaled-down road, bridge and school construction program to be paid for by leasing the Illinois lottery. But house Democrats say it will take weeks of analysis to see if the $25 billion plan is feasible.

"There's no way that we're prepared just to jump hook, line and sinker for the proposal he made just about a week ago," said State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, (D) Chicago. "A little time, a little thought, a little discussion and a little negotiation."

The did vote down a 13.8 percent pay raise for lawmakers and other elected officials that a compensation review board recommended. North suburban Democrat Susan Garrett led the opposition to the raise.

"Somebody has to take a stand. Taxpayers across the state are really upset by the fact that we are going to be accepting a 13.8 percent pay increase when, in fact, we've had a lackluster session, a couple of sessions, you could say," Garrett, (D) Lake Forest, said. "We have cut back dramatically. We are not giving high increases in pay to anybody else in the state. We've taken back funds for the substance abuse program, and here we are in Springfield giving ourselves a raise. It doesn't make sense."

The pay raises were rejected in the house in May. If approved, they would've taken effect immediately - 13.8% over two years - boosting the governor $20,000 to $193,000, legislative leaders up to $103,000 and rank-and-file lawmakers to $73,000. For the record, the average state employee who works full-time makes $54,000.

"The conduct of state government has been disgraceful. No one down here, most of all the Democrats that run the operation, deserve a pay raise. The scandals, the corruption, the egos, the turf war - it's been disgraceful," said State Sen. Dan Cronin, (R) Elmhurst. "And I think the taxpayers agree with that."

Some of the Democrats, including senate president Emil Jones, claimed they work hard enough to deserve a raise, so they were voting in favor. But others were voting "present," to protest the politics of the vote.

"I'm saying I should not be making the determination of how much I get paid," said State Sen. Kwame Raoul, (D) Chicago.

The gallery was filled Tuesday with several hundred people wearing very colorful teal blue t-shirts. They represent a variety of substance abuse groups around the state, groups whose budgets were cut by Governor Blagojevich. They were there demanding a restoration of those funds, but there's no known plans for any kind of a vote on the budget. They're planning on dealing with school funding and infrastructure repairs, but the only vote on the agenda thus far, was those legislative pay raises, which in this political climate could have been suicide to vote yes for.

These are very tough economic times for the people of Illinois, and yet the taxpayers were being asked to shell out $70,000 for Tuesday's special session on education funding, which lasted less than half an hour and accomplished little except to intensify the bitter feud between Blagojevich, who ordered the special session, and lawmakers, who were expecting the governor to put a new plan on the table or at least schedule some meetings.

But the governor had other plans. The governor's decision to auction off livestock at the state fair in Springfield Tuesday night after calling Illinois lawmakers back to the capital that afternoon for a special session on education funding, but not scheduling any meetings or offering any proposals, infuriated lots of legislators, including Meeks, who is heading back home to arrange the student boycott he is organizing.

"He is at the state fair playing with cows. We came here to talk about kids. This is the place we were going to talk about how to get adequate resources to kids, not how to get feed to cows," said Meeks.

"Unfortunately, if James Meeks is frustrated, he ought to blame his fellow lawmakers. They failed once again to do their job. It is a constitutional requirement that the legislature pass funding for schools," said State Sen. Frank Watson, (R) minority leader.

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