Thursday, April 23, 2009

A nice gesture, or petty politics?

Whenever I hear an elected official start to rant and rage about the salaries they receive, I get worried. Because invariably, they engage in high-minded talk that is not backed up by their actions.

They try to turn minor actions into content worthy of the lofty rhetoric they like to spew. In short, it is perfect proof of the old cliché, “Talk is cheap.”

THAT IS WHY I don’t think much of the Republican-led efforts to talk up the concept of having our state legislators reject the 2.8 percent cost-of-living adjustments to their salaries that they will receive when the new state fiscal year begins July 1.

Now the reality of our partisan political situation in Illinois these days is that Republicans don’t have the ability to do anything unless their Democratic Party colleagues decide to let them.

So when Republicans in the Illinois House of Representatives tried to push for a measure to reject the pay adjustments meant to keep salaries up to date with inflation, they failed.

It’s not like there’s a vote of Democrats voting to keep the salaries. Actually, what happened was that Democrats used their potential for rigid control to keep the issue from even being voted on.

FOR THE RECORD, history will show that the issue was never addressed. Which might as well be a rejection, insofar as people who want to put a halt to anything resembling a pay raise are concerned.

This is going to come across as a defense of Democrats for being willing to take a boost in their pay (which varies among legislators depending on seniority and the types of committee assignments and leadership posts they hold).

I would guess that the people who are now going to spew rhetoric beating up on Democrats for not putting the interests of the people ahead of their own paychecks are also going to dump on this commentary (and me personally) for being some sort of Democratic Party lackey.

What this commentary actually is, is an attack on people trying to twist an issue to create some cheap rhetoric to gain some petty political points for themselves.

FOR THAT IS how I perceive the whole issue of legislative pay raises/cost-of-living adjustments – whenever it comes up.

Bill Black, the state representative from Danville who led Wednesday’s failed attempt to force a vote on the issue – admits that denying the cost-of-living adjustment to legislators would only save state government about $2 million.

At a time when state government has a potential hole in its budget of more than $9 BILLION, $2 million is petty change. It wouldn’t even come close to filling the financial gap that exists.

Black told the Chicago Tribune that it makes a nice gesture, letting political people return to their homes to tell their neighbors that they did something personal to try to balance the budget.

I’D ARGUE THAT all it does is create a “fact” that political people will distort and spin to a ridiculous excess to try to claim they did something, when all they did was tossed a (figuratively-speaking) penny or two at the problem.

Some supporters of the move said it is “pathetic” for legislators to think of taking money. I’d argue that what is pathetic is trying to claim this insignificant financial gesture would mean anything in terms of resolving the state’s financial problems.

Besides, the idea that this is an issue where Democrats are greedily taking higher state salaries just isn’t borne out by history. Anybody who has paid attention to the Statehouse Scene throughout the years knows it doesn’t matter which political party is in control.

Salaries for legislators increase over time, just like they do for any other line of work.

I DON’T RECALL the mid-1990s era when the Republican Party controlled all of Illinois government being a period where the GOP used its influence to go through the convoluted procedure by which a pay raise/cost-of-living adjustment could actually be denied.

That process involves having both the state Senate AND Illinois House approve an identical resolution that specifically says raises recommended for state government employees by a non-partisan commission should be rejected.

Invariably, each chamber would come up with its own resolution, giving people a chance to make high-minded pronouncements about not granting pay raises in tight financial times. But the Senate and House then fail to approve each other’s resolutions – so the pay hikes would take effect as recommended by the commission.

In short, the past has been filled with cheap rhetoric whenever it comes to the political pay hike issue. Wednesday’s talk was just as worthless.

IN FACT, REP. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, may very well be the only person who said something of substance on the issue. He told the Chicago Tribune that he noticed the same legislators who talked it up last year about rejecting pay raises had no problem actually accepting the 3.8 percent cost-of-living adjustment they received for the state’s current fiscal year.

If anything, that makes Dunkin and his colleagues who supported the pay boosts more credible in my mind. At least they’re being honest about the money.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Does anyone really think that an extra $2 million would put a significant ( number back to work of the 9.1 percent of Illinoisans who are out of work?

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