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Useless committees provide political pay raises for state lawmakers

Madison County Record

Wednesday, March 1, 2017  |  Commentary  |  Austin Berg, Illinois Policy Institute

Budget--State (8) , Legislature (56) Currie, Barbara Flynn--State House, 25 , Madigan, Michael--State House, 22
In Illinois, bloat doesn’t discriminate.

It’s not just government agencies that stick taxpayers with the bill for inefficient operations. It’s state lawmakers, too. Yes, the same ones who haven’t passed a balanced budget in over a decade.

Illinois lawmakers take home the fifth-highest base salary in the nation for what is technically part-time work. But that nearly $68,000 paycheck isn’t all they get. Lawmakers get some easy money from their party bosses as well.

It’s really a great deal. This bonus is not based on performance. It’s not even based on effort. It’s based on loyalty.

I’m speaking of the Illinois General Assembly’s committee racket. The Land of Lincoln is like no other state when it comes to doling out pay hikes to politicians for the privilege of chairing a committee.

Buried in the House rules lawmakers passed in January are a dozen new committees, bringing the total number of standing committees in the House to 45.

That’s more than one committee for every three state representatives. House Speaker Mike Madigan will handpick the chair of each standing committee, in addition to 11 special committees. Committee chairs receive a $10,326 stipend annually.

No other state House in the country pays a bonus to this many standing committee chairs, according to an analysis of each state’s legislative bodies and 2016 data from the National Council on State Legislatures. Illinois is an outlier.

And in the spirit of bipartisanship, Republicans get in on the game as well. The minority spokesperson for every committee gets the same stipend as their Madigan-appointed counterpart.

This is why the system tends toward absurdity.

Why stop at 45 committees? Why not create a special committee for each of the 118 House members? Surely the state has enough problems to warrant such bold action.

Or Illinois could come down to earth and cut the number of House committees in half, putting it closer in line with states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio. More committees clearly doesn’t equal better governance.

But the sad joke of the Illinois House is that virtually none of its committees matter all that much.

Most of the power rests in the Rules Committee, which is chaired by longtime Madigan lackey Barbara Flynn Currie. Every House bill begins in the Rules Committee. And if Madigan doesn’t like it, it dies there, never to be heard from again. It is virtually impossible for rank-and-file lawmakers to discharge a bill from Rules.

The Illinois House is one of only two House chambers in the country that muzzles debate in such an extreme manner.

The system is so broken that some House committees barely bother meeting at all. Nine committees had fewer than five meetings in 2015. For the chairs, that’s $10,326 for less than a long day’s work.

And it isn’t just a House problem. The Illinois Senate operates similarly, adding four new standing committees in January. Only the New York Senate pays bonuses to more standing committee chairs than the Illinois Senate.

In fact, the Illinois Senate’s 26 standing committees are enough to give every Republican state senator in Illinois a minority spokesperson position, and the accompanying five-figure stipend.

Perhaps this sort of treatment is why some feel friendly enough to cut a deal with Democrats to hike taxes by billions of dollars.

Where does it end? The General Assembly’s committee craze is trophy culture at its worst. When you give an award to almost everybody, it stops meaning much.

Unless you’re the one picking up the tab.