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Illinois governor suspends legislator pay over pension impasse

Governor of Illinois Pat Quinn addresses the first session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 4,
Governor of Illinois Pat Quinn addresses the first session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 4,

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The fight over fixing Illinois' pension liability has come down to this: Unable to forge a plan to solve the state's $100 billion pension underfunding, the governor is suspending legislators' $68,000-a-year paychecks.

Governor Pat Quinn on Wednesday used his line-item veto to eliminate salaries for state lawmakers from the fiscal 2014 budget. If the salaries indeed are cut, the move saves the state $1.15 million a month.

Quinn, a Democrat, said he is also suspending his own salary until a pension bill hits his desk.

The governor said lawmakers have pushed the state into a crisis by failing to resolve the public pension liability that has driven Illinois' credit rating to the lowest level among U.S. states.

Illinois lawmakers receive an annual salary of $67,836 in 2013, plus $111 per day to cover expenses when the legislature is in session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Senate President John Cullerton, a fellow Democrat, took Quinn to task, saying the work of a special legislative conference committee seeking a compromise solution on pensions should not be undermined or deterred by political grandstanding.

Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said she requested a review by her legal staff of Quinn's action.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office is closely looking at Quinn's move, according to spokeswoman Natalie Bauer.

"The governor's actions raise a series of constitutional and procedural issues that have never been resolved by the courts," she said.

Madigan, the daughter of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, is considered a possible Democratic challenger to Quinn in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

Speaker Madigan responded to Quinn's salary cut by taking credit for his chamber's passage in May of a comprehensive pension fix.

The provisions included setting a cap on salaries used to determine pensions, limits to cost-of-living adjustments and other changes. The Madigan bill went down to overwhelming defeat in the Senate.

"The governor's decision follows my efforts and I understand his frustration. I am hopeful his strategy works," Madigan said in a statement.

The state Senate did pass a pension fix supported by public labor unions, but Madigan never brought that proposal for a House vote, and the spring legislative session ended on May 31.

State Senator Bill Brady, a member of the conference committee and a Republican candidate for governor, said Quinn has not presented a detailed pension proposal.

"The conference committee needs to meet tomorrow and the governor needs to be at that meeting. He needs to personally attend and present a detailed plan instead of sending a proxy in his place," Brady said. Quinn did not appear at Monday's committee meeting, sending his budget director instead.

Some lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly have complained that Quinn has been ineffective in forging compromises on important matters, such as pensions and the concealed carrying of handguns. After failing to play a central role in pension reform negotiations during the legislative session, Quinn has scrambled in recent weeks to be seen as a leader in the effort.

Legislators left the capitol on Tuesday after overriding Quinn's veto of the gun legislation. Even though the governor had set a Tuesday deadline to enact a comprehensive pension measure, they took no action on pension reform after the conference committee made it clear on Monday that it needed more time.

(Reporting by Karen Pierog; editing by David Greising, Dan Grebler, Kenneth Barry and Phil Berlowitz)