SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — The cost of an automatic pay increase for lawmakers may be zero to taxpayers, but to statehouse Republicans angling to regain legislative seats in November’s election, the political opportunities are priceless.

In the fiscal year budget that begins on July 1, 2020, state legislators authorized Comptroller Susana Mendoza (D-Illinois) to spend no money on their automatic annual pay increases.

“There is no funding in this budget for a pay increase for legislators,” Senator Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) said in an interview on Capitol Connection.

Budget documents show the line item amount for legislative pay raises in the upcoming fiscal year stands at $0.

“I do not think that legislators will in fact get a raise this year,” Governor J.B. Pritzker said in a Sunday press conference. Last year, Pritzker openly defended granting lawmakers their first legislative pay increase in more than a decade, citing “how hard these legislators are working.”

Despite complaints from some Senate Democrats who said last year’s pay raise was accidentally left in the budget as a “drafting error,” the House ultimately passed it to Pritzker’s desk, and he signed it into law, hiking the annual salary for state lawmakers from $67,836 up to $69,464. Other perks for lawmakers include pension benefits, per diem payments worth $111 for each day they attend session, mileage reimbursement, and added compensation for members with leadership duties.

Following a year where apparent sleight of hand resulted in a 2.4 percent legislative pay raise, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin was slow to take Democrats at their word, and quick to suggest they were more likely to raise their pay than they were to freeze it in place.

“The audacity!” Durkin (R-Western Springs) exclaimed in disgust. “The audacity for the legislature to accept a pay raise at this time in this history of the state.”

Since the legislature did not explicitly remove the recurring boilerplate language in the law that guarantees an automatic annual cost of living adjustment (or COLA), Durkin seized on the issue, and described it as yet another deceptive pay raise.

“1.2 million of our citizens we serve are out of work,” Durkin said in floor debate on Saturday. “I am just blown away by this that the Democrats in the House and the Senate found a way to slip in to this bill a legislative pay raise,” he said, “because we have not proactively banned the COLA.”

Sensitive to the tone-deaf political optics of raising their own pay while others suffered economic hardship, state lawmakers had opted against receiving an annual COLA in every budget since the Great Recession. Sensing opportunity in the same political optics, governors ranging from Rod Blagojevich to Bruce Rauner have picked fights with the legislative and judicial branches over their rates of pay, setting off a series of court battles about compensation for public officials.

It was only after former state Senators Mike Noland (D-Elgin) and James Clayborne (D-Belleville) retired from the legislature that they sued the Comptroller for legislative back pay and furlough days. They argued that eliminating a COLA, as was common legislative practice at the time, was unconstitutional. Even though Noland himself voted for the measure to block his own pay, last year, a judge in Cook County ruled in their favor, finding the COLA is protected in the state constitution.

“That is a legal obligation on behalf of the Comptroller,” Durkin said in his Saturday remarks, alluding to the ongoing court case. “So congratulations, we’re getting a pay raise,” he sarcastically concluded.

The state has filed an appeal to the appellate court. Neither Noland nor Clayborne have yet received any back pay. Yet, the lower court ruling is precisely why Senate Democrats say they took a different route in this year to circumvent a pay increase for themselves in this year’s budget.

This time around, instead of removing the COLA, lawmakers simply defunded it, a maneuver Manar says is designed to avoid aggravating the constitutional protections of the COLA while exercising the legislative power of the purse strings.

“If you listen to what a judge has said, that’s an unconstitutional step,” Senator Manar explained, “so what we chose to do instead was not provide money for the budget, which drives the decision of the Comptroller in terms of how she determines whether raises should happen or not.”

Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) echoed comments from Manar and Senator Heather Steans (D-Chicago) in remarks to the press following the adjournment of the legislative session.

“The Comptroller who writes the paychecks has ensured us that she will not be paying any increase in the salary based on the appropriation we passed,” Harmon said.

Abdon Pallasch, a spokesman for Comptroller Mendoza, left nothing open to interpretation.

 “There is no appropriation for a Cost of Living [Adjustment] for the members of the General Assembly,” Pallasch said on Tuesday afternoon. “We will not be paying them any more than they got paid last year.”

So long as the Comptroller doesn’t release the checks, lawmakers won’t actually receive a pay increase. But that hasn’t stopped the ILGOP from trying to make them pay a steep price in the interim.

In several emails and social media posts, the Illinois Republican Party portrayed Democratic state legislators who voted for the new budget as greedy politicians who fattened their own wallets while more than a million workers in the state stand in the unemployment line.

In several social media posts, the Illinois Republican Party portrayed Democratic state legislators as greedy politicians who voted to fatten their own wallets while more than a million workers in the state stand in the unemployment line.

The first checks for the upcoming fiscal year go out in July. The amount of those checks will be disclosed to the public on the Comptroller’s salary database website. In the meantime, as some Republicans have used the issue to sling mud, some Democrats have preemptively opted to sidestep it.

Representatives Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside) and Katie Stuart (D-Edwardsville) attempted to neutralize the barrage of political attacks with a pledge to donate any pay increase they might receive to charitable organizations that are working to provide relief for families affected by COVID-19.

“I’m not sure the Illinois GOP is the foremost authority on the statutory construction of the Illinois Constitution when it comes to lawmaker pay,” Zalewski said. “I will tell you that I think, regardless of what they say, you know, in my mind, if the Comptroller chooses to, in any event, add money to my paycheck, it’s going to a good cause.”

Durkin dismissed the sincerity of the new strategy to block legislative pay raises, saying, “I don’t care what happened in the Senate or what type of agreement was between the Comptroller and some people over there.”

Senate Republican Jason Plummer (R-Edwardsville) was equally as suspicious.

“Look at the Clayborne-Noland case,” Plummer said Tuesday night. “You know there are people who are shameless.”

“There are a lot of legislators who feel they’re entitled to a pay raise,” Plummer claimed.

Joe Hackler, the ILGOP communications director, acknowledged the legislative pay raise issue will likely become a campaign attack advertisement in the general election.

“They know this is ripe for political mischief on Facebook,” Senator Manar said.

In a separate post the Illinois Republican Party predicted the outcome to a legal challenge that has not yet been filed for a new law that has not yet been enacted.

“Here’s what will happen: a safe, entrenched legislator will sue to get their pay raise now mandated in statute,” the post predicted. “The comptroller will then comply based on past court precedent.”

Social media posts from the Illinois Republican Party rely heavily on predicting an unknown judge’s future interpretation of a new law for a case that has not yet been filed.

The Comptroller has not yet complied with the court ruling in the Noland-Clayborne case. Even if an appellate court forces her to release back pay or unpaid furlough days for Noland or Clayborne, Manar argues any precedent set in that case would not apply to this new law.

“If somebody sues, that’s fine,” Manar said. “I don’t know what they’re going to sue on.”

“I think eventually, [Mendoza] probably just funds it,” Plummer predicted.

A 2014 law protected the legislative and judicial branches from taking pay cuts, locking a “continuing appropriation” in place. However, that law says the continuing appropriation would only take effect if the Governor or General Assembly moved to reduce the funding levels from the prior year. In separate court cases, judges have ruled the legislature has the power to reduce appropriation levels or dollar amounts, but cannot diminish benefits that are protected in the state constitution.

“There’s a ton of ambiguity here,” Plummer said, wondering whether the state could “have a Comptroller who just starts picking and choosing what continuing appropriation she can fund.”

“The continuing appropriation only happens when the appropriation is reduced,” Manar retorted. “The law is clear on that aspect. No one is confused on this except for Jason Plummer,” he said.

Manar highlighted that when judges are unclear on the plain language written in state law, they often review the public record from the debate on the floor when the law was being drafted to consider the “legislative intent.”

“I think [legislative intent] could definitely be persuasive to a judge if someone were to bring a lawsuit,” Zalewski agreed.

“If we get to July 2021 and no one sees a pay increase, I’ll be elated,” Plummer said, referencing the close of the next fiscal year.

“If Andy [Manar] can thread that needle, and every lawyer and staffer and lawmaker I’ve talked to is wrong, then that will be interesting,” Plummer said. “I guess he’d be right.”