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Lawmaker says pay delays for Illinois pols is a threat to democracy

An Illinois state representative this week is claiming that long delays in paying the state's elected officials are tantamount to corruption.

Rep. Robert Martwick (D-Chicago) touched off a storm of comments Wednesday by saying on his Facebook page that financial pressures on working-class lawmakers who depend on their state salaries discourage people of modest means from seeking elective office.

The payment delays are one of the results of a protracted state budget battle. Martwick said the delays chip away at the very system of governance itself.

“In our system of democracy, everyone should have an opportunity to serve, not just those who can afford to do so,” Martwick said. “While these types of actions, which purport to ‘punish’ politicians for their failures, are popular, the net effect is to ‘corrupt’ the integrity of our system of democracy.”

The lawmaker was referring to Republican state Comptroller Leslie Munger’s decision in April not to prioritize payments to state lawmakers and state constitutional officeholders, including herself, and treat them like any other payments. Even after a stopgap budget was passed in June, payments to nonprofit groups, vendors, colleges, schools and hospitals continue to face delays of 2 1/2 months, Munger’s spokesman, Rich Carter, told AMI Newswire.

“How can I in good conscience tell hospitals, schools, small businesses, nonprofits and others to get in line – and then walk politicians to the front?” Munger said in a prepared statement. “It remains a matter of fundamental fairness. We are all in this together, and we all should wait in line.”

Martwick, who has a law practice and himself has not accepted any state pay in more than a year, told AMI Newswire that Munger’s position sounded fair and that the state should pay its bills on time, but the outcome remains a serious concern.

“It interferes with the normal function of democracy,” Martwick said.

Just as offering money to an elected lawmaker to secure a vote is corruption, so is withholding pay as a means to force a vote, he said.

The state representative pointed to how several fellow lawmakers were struggling with the uncertainty of being paid. Since April, each lawmaker has received just a single paycheck, part of a batch sent out in early July.

Rep. Litsea Wallace (D-Rockford), a single mom who represents an economically depressed region of Illinois, is being denied a key source of her income, Martwick said. And Jaime Andrade Jr. (D-Chicago) has begun working for Uber as a driver in order to make ends meet, he said.

Martwick described Andrade as an especially smart and hard-working legislator. “By denying him pay, Leslie Geissler Munger and (Gov.) Bruce Rauner are trying, and succeeding, at putting him in a very difficult financial situation,” he said in one of his Facebook posts.

Another colleague, Chad Hays (R-Danville), took the unusual step of lending himself money from his campaign account to tide him over during the financial uncertainties, Marwick said.

Such actions place people in situations that compromise their ability to function and to move the democratic process forward, according to Martwick.

“The single most important responsibility of anyone seeking to serve in a democracy is to protect and preserve the system,” the state representative said on one of his Facebook posts. “Funding education, public safety, human services and infrastructure can only be made fairly and correctly if there is a functioning system of democracy that allows citizens to have a voice in how those decisions are made.”

Reaction to the lawmaker’s comments on social media has been less than sympathetic, as many of those commenting on budget issues blame the lawmakers for failing to provide a long-term solution. Many think it’s appropriate that lawmakers are feeling the same pressures as other vendors and nonprofits that have not been paid despite providing needed services.

“Your fidelity and loyalty to democracy and the (state) constitution is laughable,” one person said on Facebook. “You haven’t passed a balanced budget, which is a direct violation of the constitution and democracy you claim to revere. That you don’t see your hypocrisy is another reason why every last one of you is worthless and should be voted out.”

The Illinois Policy Institute also weighed in on Martwick’s comments this week, calling such complaints about delayed pay for elected officials “tone-deaf.”

“Illinois lawmakers aren’t used to being treated like everyone else,” an article on the institute’s website said. State lawmakers are guaranteed their salaries – compensation that equals nearly $100,000 annually – even during budget crises, for jobs that are essentially part-time, the institute said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have allowed Illinois to become the second-worst state in putting citizens back to work since the recession that unfolded in 2008, the institute said.

Carter, the comptroller’s spokesman, said the situation will worsen this year even with the stopgap measure passed by the legislature. With a $400-million monthly operational deficit, the state’s current 2 1/2-month delay in paying bills will lengthen to six months by the end of the year, he said, and the current $8 billion backlog in payouts will swell to more than $10 billion by Dec. 31.

Martwick expressed pessimism that a long-term budget solution to balance spending and revenue will be found soon and said the legislature would not reconvene until Nov. 15.

“We should be there working, but that’s not my decision to make,” he said.