Legislation proposed by Rep. Mike Boland, D-East Moline, to block recent pay raises to Rock Island County officials was approved by the Illinois House on Thursday with a 70-32 vote.
The bill will now go before the Senate.
In debate on the House floor, Boland called the raises “atrocious,” especially in light of a plan to furlough rank-and-file county workers.
“It’s just a terrible situation and a terrible time to pass a massive increase of 12.7 percent plus these big bonuses,” Boland said.
Some lawmakers questioned whether it was appropriate for the state to wade into a decision made by local government officials.
“Why are we dictating how the county does its business?” asked state Rep. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan. “This is a terrible piece of legislation.”
“We’ve never went down this path before,” added state Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro. “We don’t want the federal government coming in… to try and tell us how to run our state.”
Some Republican lawmakers said the state needs to focus on itself. State employees who are members of labor unions, for example, are set to get more than $300 million in raises in the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, suggested the measure may have a tough time getting a hearing in the chamber before lawmakers adjourn for the summer.
“I don’t know what business it is of the state to tell local governments how to balance their checkbooks when the state can’t balance its own,” Jacobs said.
Boland believes the citizens of Rock Island County need the state to help.
“There are situations where we decide it is the purview of the legislature to step in,” Boland said.
Boland said his office received multiple calls from residents upset with the raises the county board approved last week, especially in light of the struggling economy and proposed budget cuts.
“Our office has just been bombarded with calls from people who are outraged by it,” he said. “For the county board, outside of five or six brave souls, to vote themselves huge raises is just unbelievable.”
Rock Island County Board Chairman Jim Bohnsack laughed and expressed frustration when asked about the bill Thursday. He questioned why the state would get involved in the county’s decision when it has a $13 billion deficit to remedy.
“I’m just shocked,” Bohnsack said. “The state is worrying about $13 billion and then comes up with a bill for a county that is being fiscally responsible. Here is a county that is doing pretty good. We’ve frozen salaries for two and four years.”
Bohnsack noted that the raises in question will not go into effect for two years and the county officials due for raises in the next election cycle, including circuit clerk, coroner and county recorder, could still have their wages frozen if the economy does not improve.
Bohnsack was critical of Boland for introducing the legislation.
“I wouldn’t have been so shocked if it was a Republican,” he said. “If Boland had worked that hard to get us (state) money we wouldn’t have had a problem.”
Rock Island County State’s Attorney Jeff Terronez said if Boland’s legislation is approved by the Senate and governor it would be unconstitional because it would violate the state’s single subject rule. Since the legislation is an amendment to a Senate bill related to a Cook County issue it covers more than one subject, he argued.
Terronez, whose salary is not set by the county board, said if the bill passes he would advise board members to ignore the legislation and to follow long-standing county code that gives the board the authority to set salaries.
“The legislation comes at complete odds with the county’s authority to set salaries for its officials,” he said.
Earlier this week, Rich Morthland, the only Republican on the Rock Island County Board and a candidate for the legislative seat in District 71, who is hoping to succeed Boland, kicked off a petition drive to repeal the pay increases.
Local activists will seek to raise opposition to the raises with a door-to-door campaign, as well as through public demonstrations, Morthland said.
Bohnsack said if Morthland wants to call a special meeting to discuss the issue he would need nine votes, which Bohnsack thinks he could get.
On Thursday, Morthland said he generally opposes Springfield inserting itself into local issues, but in this case he'd make an exception.
"If it was any other county, definitely not," he said. But he added, "I'd do anything to stop these raises."
Support for the petition he and county Republicans launched this week has been “overwhelming,” Morthland said, though he did not have at hand the number of people who had signed. “I’m getting calls on my cell phone, on the campaign line,” he said. “People are extremely angered by this.”
(Ed Tibbetts contributed to this story)