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Judge: Move state lawmaker pay to the front of long line of unpaid bills

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza speaks to the City Club of Chicago on March 20, 2017, and blasts Gov. Bruce Rauner’s handling of state finances.

A Cook County judge on Thursday ruled that state lawmakers’ months-delayed paychecks must move to the front of the line at the Illinois comptroller’s office, where a historic state budget stalemate has helped cause a pileup of more than $12.8 billion worth of unpaid bills.

Last year, then-Comptroller Leslie Geissler Munger, an appointee of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, put lawmaker paychecks in line with Illinois’ other past-due bills in an effort to make lawmakers feel the pain of the budget stalemate.

A handful of Democratic lawmakers had asked the court to compel Comptroller Susana Mendoza to pay their salaries ahead of other past-due bills, saying state law requires lawmakers to be paid in 12 equal monthly installments.

Judge Rodolfo Garcia Thursday ruled Mendoza needs to pay up. Mendoza said she planned to comply with the order, but also would ask her lawyers to appeal the judge’s ruling.

"As former Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka did in a 2013 legislator-pay case, I will release the back pay checks to all elected officials consistent with the judge’s order," Mendoza said in a statement.

A group of lawmakers, hired attorneys Michael Kasper, a Democratic lawyer with long-standing ties to House Speaker Michael Madigan, and Richard J. Prendergast, who represented lawmakers who successfully sued former Gov. Pat Quinn after he froze legislative pay during a fight over pension legislation more than three years ago.

Judge Garcia, after hearing arguments from both sides last week, said lawmakers had left the comptroller no choice but to delay some payments because the lack of a budget has left the state accumulating more expenses than it has money to pay for them.

"To the extent that the legislature has avoided making the very hard decisions in passing a budget, it has delegated that sort of discretion to the comptroller," Garcia said at last week’s hearing. "Someone’s got to make these decisions."

Acknowledging that the lawmakers were likely to appeal his decision, Garcia delayed his ruling on the case by a week in order to allow the lawmakers’ lawyers to prepare additional arguments that might be important in an appeal.

The path to court began when Munger, who was facing a special election at the time, argued in April that lawmakers should not be collecting their salaries on time when gridlock at the Capitol has caused vendors and not-for-profit social service providers to have to wait months for payment on overdue bills.

Munger has since been replaced by Mendoza, who won the November special election. But Mendoza has left her predecessor’s policy on lawmaker paychecks in place. Members of the General Assembly received their June paychecks in late January, according to the comptroller’s office.

The lawmakers’ lawyers had tried to argue that the comptroller was operating outside her authority by delaying the payments. State law requires lawmakers to be paid in 12 equal monthly installments. And the Illinois Constitution forbids changes to lawmakers’ salaries during their terms.

Twitter @kimgeiger