Comptroller says she can't pay Illinois lawmakers

Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka listens to a question during a news conference in Chicago, Thursday, July 25, 2013. Topinka says she has no choice but to withhold paychecks from Illinois lawmakers after her office reviewed Gov. Pat Quinn's decision to cut state legislator's paychecks earlier this month. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

CHICAGO (AP) -- Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said Thursday that she has no choice but to withhold lawmakers' paychecks, citing a precedent-setting court case that bars her from paying state employees without a budget appropriation or court order.

Gov. Pat Quinn cut $13.8 million for legislators' paychecks from a budget bill earlier this month, saying it wouldn't be restored until lawmakers addressed the state's $97 billion pension shortfall. He also suspended his own pay.

"It is my deep hope that this matter is resolved expeditiously," either by a court or by lawmakers agreeing on a solution to the pension crisis, said Topinka, who undertook a legal review to determine if Quinn's actions were constitutional. The Riverside Republican said Thursday that Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office advised her of the case that appears to bar her from acting

She called Quinn's actions a "serious precedent that is being created," and said the stalemate was "no way to run government."

"Threats, blackmail and inertia may be good theater, but it makes us look ridiculous and takes away from our ability to get things done," she said. "It is time for leaders to lead."

Lawmakers are scheduled to receive their next paychecks on Aug. 1.

A provision of the Illinois Constitution says changes in lawmaker salary should not take effect during the term in which they were elected. But Quinn cited the prior court ruling and said he isn't changing their salary, just withholding the money to pay it.

Quinn, a Chicago Democrat who used his line-item veto power in a budget bill to suspend the pay as a way to spur lawmakers to action, issued a statement saying Topinka came to the right conclusion and reiterating his vow to hold fast on his decision.

"Nobody should be paid until the job gets done for taxpayers," Quinn said.

Senate President John Cullerton believes Quinn's actions raise "serious constitutional issues" and is reviewing his legal options, a spokeswoman said.

Lawmakers, who receive an annual salary of more than $67,000 and additional pay for leadership positions, would have to vote to reject Quinn's changes if they want to get paid.

Quinn's action "sets a very poor constitutional precedent for the executive branch to try to force legislative action through a payroll decision," said state Rep. Mike Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat who sits on a bipartisan committee looking at possible pension solutions after the House and Senate deadlocked on an approach.

But Zalewski acknowledged that the governor's action is resonating with average citizens "who just want to see us get something done." He said the committee is probably a few weeks away from a resolution.

Illinois' unfunded pension liability is the worst in the nation because lawmakers either skipped or shorted payments to the state's five retirement systems for decades. Inaction on solving the pension problem has led to repeated credit rating downgrades, while governors from other states have used it as a basis to poach jobs from Illinois.

Quinn has made it his top issue for about two years, called special sessions and set deadlines for lawmakers, but with little success. He's hinted at the possibility of a special session on pensions when lawmakers are in Springfield next month for the Illinois State Fair.