SPRINGFIELD — Will state legislators lead from the front when it comes to sacrificing during a brutal budget year?
State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Cary, says it’s certainly time they do. He has filed a bill that would reduce legislator pay by 10 percent and another that would reduce state constitutional officers’ pay by 10 percent.
He also wants to end state pensions for newly elected legislators.
McSweeney has already voluntarily reduced his own pay by 10 percent, cut his district office expenditure and declined to participate in the pension system.
“We all need to lead by example in Springfield,” McSweeney told Illinois News Network.
“We’re obviously facing a tough fiscal situation, and legislators should start with a 10 percent reduction, and I think all the constitutional officers should follow suit.”
The changes McSweeney seeks would have to wait until new terms begin. The state constitution mandates elected officials’ salaries not be raised or lowered during any given term.
Efforts like McSweeney’s could see some success this year, said one political analyst, but he added not to expect much until late in the spring.
If cuts to state government are severe as expected, legislators might have to make a gesture to show they are sharing in the pain, said Kent Redfield, political science professor emeritus at University of Illinois Springfield.
“I think we may see some response when the Legislature really gets into discussing spending cuts and (revenue) increases.”
“I suspect something will get done before the end of the session to show legislators’ commitment.”
Gov. Bruce Rauner has referenced “shared sacrifice” when he discusses the state’s enormous financial problems. Illinois’ annual operating deficit is in the billions and the state also has a pension-funding shortfall of $111 billion.
Rauner has cut his pay to $1 per year.
And Illinois legislators are well-paid.
Only California, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania pay their legislators higher base salaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Illinois legislators’ base pay for 2104 was about $66,300, according to data from the state comptroller’s office.
Additionally, many state legislators pick up bonuses for serving in leadership positions, including committee chairmanships.
The average 2014 pay for senators was about $77,000 and representatives about $74,000. Legislators also receive a daily payment of $111 when their chamber is in session.
Taxpayers also fund legislators’ health care and pensions.
A seat in the General Assembly is considered a part-time job, and some members continue to pursue their original trade or profession, while others consider themselves full-time legislators.
Above-average pay for legislators is not necessarily a bad thing, said Chris Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.
The public, he said, should consider if it wants legislative pay set at a level where only the wealthy could afford to make time to serve. Conversely, he added, the pay should be attractive enough that a talented but not necessarily wealthy person would be attracted.
Mooney pointed out that when Gov. Pat Quinn ordered a halt to legislative pay in the summer 2013 during a fight over the pension crisis, some legislators could afford to shrug while others were taking out loans for living expenses.
A judge eventually ordered legislators be paid with interest.
There indeed is nothing wrong with a good salary for a job well done, said Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union.
“Unfortunately, Illinois in particular has suffered some pretty poor fiscal leadership for more than the past few years,” Sepp said.
He said a reduction in pay by the General Assembly would be recognition that it bears some responsibility for Illinois’ current poor financial health.
A decision to reduce pay would be “a visible commitment from elected officials to their taxpaying constituents that they are willing to take responsibility, lead from the front and share in the pain,” Sepp said.
Redfield said he sees some good in legislators treating the job as full time. The state is the nation’s fifth-largest in population, and its problems are huge and complex, he said.
Mark Fitton is a reporter for the Illinois News Network.