CHICAGO (Reuters) - The leaders of the Illinois House of Representatives and Senate on Tuesday filed a lawsuit challenging Governor Pat Quinn's veto of lawmakers' pay during a legislative impasse over pension reform.
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and state Senate President John Cullerton, both Democrats, said in a letter to fellow lawmakers that the purpose of the litigation "is to protect the independence of the legislature and preserve the separation of powers."
In their letter, Madigan and Cullerton said Quinn's action was "purely political and an unconstitutional attempt to coerce the legislature to comply with his demands."
Quinn on July 10 vetoed a bill appropriating money for lawmakers' $68,000-a-year pay after lawmakers repeatedly failed to enact legislation to deal with the state's $100 billion unfunded public pension liability.
The Democratic governor on Tuesday called the lawsuit "just plain wrong."
"Instead of focusing on resolving the state's pension crisis - which is costing taxpayers millions of dollars a day - legislators have chosen to focus on their own paychecks and waste taxpayer time and money on this lawsuit," Quinn said in a statement. He added that the state constitution gives him the power to line-item veto any appropriation.
Last week, state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, a Republican, said she could not send lawmakers their monthly paychecks due on August 1 unless the legislature overrode the governor's veto or a court ordered her to pay lawmakers.
The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago, claims Quinn's veto is unconstitutional and asks the court to direct Topinka to pay lawmakers their full salaries, plus interest on any withheld amounts. Topinka also is named in the lawsuit.
The lack of action to fix the worst-funded state pension system has pushed Illinois' credit ratings to the lowest level among states. Rising pension payments have led to spending cuts affecting core state services such as education.
"It is our hope that the court will remedy this constitutional violation and that future governors will not feel empowered to use such coercive tactics," Quinn and Cullerton wrote in their letter.
The General Assembly ended its spring session on May 31 at an impasse on pension reform. A conference committee on pension reform, created by the legislature on June 19, has not yet come up with a plan.
(Reporting by Karen Pierog; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)