The Statehouse Gang
High Illinois officials stoop low to raise their pay
December 8, 1978
It took nerve to pass a pay package that made Illinois lawmakers—no one's idea of the best lawmakers in the country—the best-paid lawmakers in the country when the pay of ordinary Illinoisans was falling behind a 12 percent inflation rate.
Illinois has long been lumbered with a stupid system that makes lawmakers responsible for deciding how much lawmakers ought to get paid. An independent non-legislative commission would be better suited to the job, but establishing such a system would require lawmakers of the sort that money apparently does not buy.
"Don't turn your back on a politician," warned Chicago Tribune columnist F. Richard Ciccone when he heard the news. "My faith in state government has been restored," sneered the State Journal-Register's Al Manning. "Contrary to the best interests of our nation," complained an angry President Carter. "Those bastards!” cried everyone else.
The cause of such widespread dismay was Illinois's lame duck General Assembly, which in a surprise move on November 29 voted to raise their pay and that of dozens of other high state officials from the governor to the secretary of the liquor control commission. The particulars were well-reported—the raise in pay for legislators from $20,000 to $28,000 annually (a 40 percent boost), a 33 percent hike in their mileage allowance to 20 cents per mile, the conveniently quick veto by Governor Thompson that made an override possible before the public had a chance to react to the raises. All this was in addition to the current $36 per diem expense allowance given each member while in session in Springfield, a $17,000 annual office allowance and a pension. The raises made Illinois lawmakers the best paid in the country.
Sixty years ago, before journalists learned manners, the General Assembly was usually referred to in the public prints as the "statehouse gang." Of course, Jesse James' outfit was called a gang too, and with good reason, since he was as adept at holding up the public as the legislature was (except that even Jesse James didn't have the gall to claim mileage). Legislators were abysmally paid in those days and worth every penny. Not that anyone ever saw a lawmaker passing the hat on the streets of Springfield; the hat was passed, all right, but it was done more discreetly in the back rooms of the statehouse.
Since then the General Assembly has gone legit. Lawmakers are now very well paid—counting allowances, nearly three times the annual salary of the average Illinoisan, according to some recent figures. This is the result of years of argument by reformers who swore that better pay would attract better people to Springfield, more honest and harder working than any of their predecessors. Even before their latest raise, legislators were pulling down the equivalent of $30,000 a year (based on a $20,000 salary for eight months in annual session).
Well, honest the new breed certainly is—why steal something you can vote yourself legally?—and hardworking too, though hard work without direction is merely wasted effort, and it is not sweat that's lacking at the statehouse but imagination and intelligence. Those who spoke in favor of the new raises pointed to the long weeks in Springfield, the thousands of bills that must be dealt with, the weighty responsibilities now borne by the state and those who run it, as reason for the reward.
It was enough to bring a tear to the eye of the Better Government Association, except that, as the Journal-Register pointed out in an editorial, it is the legislators themselves who introduce those thousands of bills, and the long weeks in Springfield are necessary mostly because of partisan bickering and general time-wasting on their part. As for the new responsibilities of state government, these too may be traced to the legislators, who busily propose state solutions to local problems as one way to prove to the voters back home that they are useful, inventive fellows—the cost of their imagination being measurable in new bills, new programs, and new costs. In a sense, the legislators gave themselves a raise for their hard work in getting themselves re-elected.
No one—not even a legislator, who as a rule will argue the most preposterous notions at the drop of a lobbyist's hat—is arguing that today's legislature at $30,000 per member is three times better than the ones we used to buy for $10,000 per. After all, our roads are crumbling, our prisons are dangerously overcrowded, our schools are ineffectual, our infant mortality rate is scandalous, our social programs wasteful and often beside the point. In the past, Illinois taxpayers have been remarkably generous in support of this sort of official incompetence; the $50,000 a year paid for four years to Dan Walker, for instance, bordered on charity. But enough is enough. Except for five-year license plates, what has the General Assembly done for us lately?
In a better world, William ("Let them eat cake") Redmond might have been a county coroner but in this one he is the speaker of the Illinois House. Redmond supported the pay raises; he was quoted by UPI as remarking, "If the people don't like it and don't feel their legislators are worth it, that's not our fault," an argument that is almost breathtaking in its arrogance. Anyway, Redmond complained in a recent TV interview that the General Assembly had met some 180 days last year out of a possible 250 working days. A $20,000 salary would thus amount to $111 a day. But legislators also get another $36 a day expense money, making their daily total $147, or $735 a week for a five-day week. That may not be much money to a legislator, for whom the hardest part of a working day is staying awake in committee hearings, but to the man or woman who helps pay his salary by combining a hundred acres of soybeans or standing hour after numbing hour on an assembly line, that money looks pretty good. In fact, according to the most recent Illinois Department of Labor figures (which show the average Illinoisan's weekly wage to be $247.36) that money looks just about three times better than what they're getting.
The governor—you know, Diamond Jim Thompson—got a raise too. Diamond Jim is a big man with big appetites. Most men would be happy to be governor of one of the country's biggest states, but Thompson wants to be President of all of them. Most men are happy with one dog as a pet, but Thompson needs three. And most men would think they'd died and gone to heaven if they awoke some morning, as Thompson did two years ago, and found themselves living in a rent-free mansion with servants and free eats, a chauffeured car, and fifty grand a year for pocket money. But Thompson complained that he needed more almost as soon as he took office. Deserved a raise indeed! I remind my readers that when Thompson "vetoed" the pay raise bill he was sunning himself in Kiawah Island, South Carolina.
President Jimmy Carter was reported to be "pretty ticked off" by these and similarly extravagant raises voted that same week by the Chicago city council and the Cook County commissioners because each violated his seven percent anti-inflation guidelines. An inquiry was ordered, but federal officials admitted there was nothing they could do to rescind the raises except to give those responsible a public scolding.
Well, we've looked to the feds to do our dirty work for too long anyway. It's high time we taxpayers took things into our own hands to keep the General Assembly from further mischief. Maybe hang spinning aluminum cutouts in the shape of Alfred Kahn in the trees around the statehouse to scare off money-hungry legislators. It's a trick they used in the '40s with shiny owls to scare off flocks of starlings that infested the capitol grounds in those days. If it worked on starlings, it ought to work on legislators. ●