EDITORIAL: Most folks don’t enjoy automatic pay hikes — and neither should legislators

April 20, 2018

Sun Times Editorial Board

When Illinois legislators want to give themselves raises, they should have the guts to take a vote on that every single time.

Back in the 1989-90 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill to give themselves automatic annual cost-of-living raises, year in and year out. That way, they got the pay boost each year without having to vote for it each time.

We can imagine why they did that. They were tired of the blowback they got every time they voted themselves a raise, even when the raise might have been clearly justified.

But it was a really weenie move.

If you want a raise, chances are you have to ask your boss, and your boss might want to evaluate your performance first. Or your union has to negotiate it at the bargaining table. You have to make your case, and sometimes you won’t get the raise.

State legislators should have to make their case, too. Every time.

Last week, the Illinois House voted to not take the cost-of-living raise for this session — as they have voted every year in recent years. No doubt, the state’s pile of $8.55 billion in unpaid bills as of Friday suggested to lawmakers that this is not the time to drain a little more money out of the treasury.

Skipping the automatic raises, which also would go to judges and statewide constitutional officers, has given legislators an effective pay cut of nearly 8 percent in real dollars since 2013.

Even so, the base pay for lawmakers of $67,836 is among the highest in the nation, and that comes with a per diem of $111 a day for each day the General Assembly is in session. Lawmakers who hold leadership positions, such as committee chairs, can get thousands of dollars a year on top of that.

On Friday, state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, who was chief co-sponsor of the bill to eliminate this year’s automatic pay raise, told us he plans to introduce a separate bill to get rid of the automatic raises altogether.

We think that’s a good idea. As we wrote in 1990, “The courageous thing to do is to take a straight-ahead vote on an increase, explain to their constituents why state officials — including legislators — deserve it and then trust the voters.”

When that bill comes up for a vote, likely in the fall or next year, the Legislature’s approval should be, well, automatic.

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