Fact check: Illinois governor didn't scheme to give 'politician buddies' raises amid pandemic




  • In Business
  • 2020-08-01 17:23:21Z
  • By USA TODAY
Fact check: Illinois governor didn\
Fact check: Illinois governor didn\'t scheme to give \'politician buddies\' raises amid pandemic  

The claim: Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker schemed to give his 'politician buddies' raises during pandemic

Illinois Rising Action, a 501(c)(4) organization that aims to hold "liberal groups and their special interest networks" accountable, released an ad slamming Gov. J.B. Pritzker for allegedly scheming to give his "politician buddies" pay raises amid a pandemic.

"As unemployment soared and voters were distracted, Pritzker gave huge raises to his politician buddies - $1,800 each," the video's narration says.

Illinois Rising Action paid just over $1 million to run the TV ad across several Illinois markets, according to the Chicago Tribune. And the organization posted a short clip from the ad to its Facebook page with the claim: "As we were distracted, Pritzker gave $1,800 raises… to his politician buddies."

The group did not respond to USA TODAY's requests for comment and clarification.

Illinois legislators aren't getting $1,800 raises

First, a bit of background on how Illinois legislators' salaries change.

Illinois lawmakers previously had to vote to give themselves a pay raise. In 1984, the Compensation Review Act changed that, creating a board to make salary recommendations that took effect automatically. In 1990, the board recommended salaries be adjusted for inflation each year - a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA.

With the change, legislators no longer had to vote on salary increases unless they wanted to get rid of them - a politically convenient move.

"They would never be accused of voting themselves a pay raise again, which is great fodder for opponents campaign brochures," said Christopher Mooney, a professor of state politics at University of Illinois at Chicago.

The board was abolished in 2009, but the COLA remained in place. Still, Illinois legislators have consistently voted against giving themselves that raise for the past decade.

The state's lawmakers did receive a $1,600 pay raise last year after the House chose not to concur with a Senate action to prevent the increase. Pritzker signed that budget legislation, citing "how hard these legislators are working" as his reason for supporting the raise.

Around that same time last year, two former legislators, seeking back pay, sued Comptroller Susana Mendoza, who is in charge of disbursing lawmakers' pay. They claimed the pay freezes were unconstitutional because the Illinois Constitution prevents their pay from being changed during a two-year term.

A Cook County judge agreed with the legislators. The state is appealing that ruling.

But to work around the issue this year, so legislators don't get a pay raise, the assembly appropriated no money toward the COLA in the state's spending bill, despite the fact it's technically still in there.

Mendoza assured constituents in a YouTube video that no lawmakers will be receiving raises this year.

"So when you hear false rumors or assumptions that Comptroller Mendoza will have to pay legislators more this year, you tell them you heard it straight from the person whose job it is to cut the checks in Illinois: Legislator raises this year will be zero," Mendoza said in the video.

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Is that allowed?

While appropriating no money toward the COLA is a temporary fix, some fear the decision won't hold up in court, forcing Mendoza's hand and requiring her to pay up.

Illinois Rising Action's executive director Kayleen Carlson did not respond to USA TODAY's request for comment, but in an interview with the Better Government Association regarding the ad, she pointed to a 2014 law, arguing it makes the $0 appropriation for the COLA in the budget an empty gesture.

"Since 2014, Illinois law automatically increases state lawmakers' pay through a 'continuing appropriation,'" Carlson wrote in an email to the BGA. "This means that legislators who want to forgo a pay increase must pass a bill specifically to do so."

Mooney said it's possible a court might not uphold the assembly's decision to withhold COLA funds, but the whole ordeal is not much more than an elaborate game of "political football."

"It's just a political conflict - a lot of sound and fury meaning not too much, especially when you look at what the total amount of money (is) we're talking about here," he said. "Relative to the state budget, it's minuscule, but it's symbolic."

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Pritzker's involvement is minimal

To say that the COLA debacle is an elaborate scheme by Pritzker to line his "politician buddies'" pockets is untrue, as Pritzker's involvement in any pay raises is minimal; he only signs the budget legislation.

"The reason (Pritzker)'s in it is because he is the most well-known Democrat, along with Mike Madigan, and they want to taper him," Mooney said, referring to Illinois' speaker of the House.

Illinois Republicans, a minority in the state, have latched onto the issue, recognizing how bad it looks for lawmakers to vote themselves a pay raise while unemployment in Illinois is at an all-time high.

"1.2 million of our citizens we serve are out of work," said House Republican Leader Jim Durkin in a floor debate May 27. "I am just blown away by this that the Democrats in the House and the Senate found a way to slip into this bill a legislative pay raise because we have not proactively banned the COLA."

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A Republican senator did attempt to make that change in February, proposing legislation that would prohibit the COLA and require lawmakers to vote for their raises. The bill died before coming up for a vote.

Mooney said the COLA issue is likely one that will remain in the forefront of the state's political debate.

"Republicans understand rightly that politicians' salaries are a hot button issue, especially in times of crisis like we have right now, so they've got themselves a good issue," Mooney said. "They're always looking for something because they're in sort of a permanent minority … They can't win the legislature, basically, and so the one place they might win is in the governor's office."

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Other tax hikes were passed pre-pandemic

Taxes on gas, cars and online shopping, as mentioned in the 30-second version of the ad, did go up this year. But each tax increase was approved in 2019.

Our rating: False

We rate the claim that Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker schemed to give his "politician buddies" a pay raise amid the pandemic as FALSE because it was not supported by our research. This year, the state's General Assembly appropriated no money in the state's spending bill toward its annual cost-of-living increase, which would be $1,800. The state comptroller has said she will not be paying raises to legislators. Unless legally challenged, Illinois lawmakers will not get raises this year. And Gov. J.B. Pritzker has approved the budget with $0 put toward legislators' raises.

Our fact-check sources:

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Ill. Gov. J. B. Pritzker and lawmakers' raises

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