05/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cullerton Legislature Pay Cut Idea Needs Polishing, But it's a Gem

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) recently floated the idea of imposing a "symbolic and appropriate" salary cut on state lawmakers. Good idea. But the lawmaker pay cut should not occur willy-nilly.

It should occur as a matter of principled budgeting policy: If the state cuts its payments to its vendors -- hospitals, doctors, nursing homes, community mental health providers, child welfare agencies, foster parents, home health aides for seniors -- all those on the front lines delivering services on behalf state government but who are the first to get the budget shaft from the state, then elected officials' salaries ought to get whacked, too.

Year-in and year-out the Legislature refuses to provide cost of living or doing business increases to these vendors. Meanwhile the governor's office -- particularly under Rod Blagojevich -- imposes cuts by stealth. Blagojevich each year routinely slapped 3 percent "reserves" on human service provider contracts and never returned the dough. Thus, a cut. And a double whammy.

For example, a Chicago child welfare agency, which provides care to HIV/AIDS-affected toddlers, has watched its state contract of $780,000 in 2003 wither to $729,000 today, all from gubernatorial imposed "reserves." And the Legislature has refused to compensate agencies like this one in subsequent budget years.

And in the last eight fiscal years, Illinois community mental health providers have received only two cost-of-doing-business increases. Two. Just two. Meanwhile, they have been subjected regularly to the Blagojevich-imposed three percent contract "reserves" or, in reality, cuts. As a result, the state now pays these providers only $1.07 for $1.48 of costs.

To pay for state-contracted care, community mental health providers must eliminate privately funded care -- fewer visits to home-bound seniors, few school mental health clinics, fewer counselors -- to subsidize this deadbeat better known as the state of Illinois. It's a disgrace.

Meanwhile, the state doles out like clockwork -- where the "tick" follows the "tock" -- annual cost of living increases to unionized state employees performing the same work as their private sector, non-profit counterparts but whom the state cuts almost annually. And it's all blessed by the Legislature.

How screwed up is that?

This is where Cullerton's legislator pay idea comes in. If the Legislature refuses to give its vendors a raise, then they forgo a raise. If the Legislature or governor cuts funding for state vendors, then lawmaker and gubernatorial salaries should be cut by an equal percentage. Call it the "what's good for the goose and gander" policy of budgeting.

You can bet your over-mortgaged house that state vendors would never go begging for a raise again.

Cullerton is on to something. Good for him.