State workers hoping to receive annual pay raises in the coming years will have to wait for the State of Illinois to creep back from the edge of an unprecedented fiscal cliff.
That’s the message desperate lawmakers and other officials are sending to Gov. Pat Quinn (D) and 44 public-sector unions as they embark on contract negotiations.
‘No Pot of Money’
“As we fight to keep facilities open and we fight to fund the pension systems, the state is at the point where any and all additional financial pressures have to be looked at very seriously,” said state Rep. John Bradley (D-Marion). “There is not a magic pot of money that can be found to pay for all the things we want.”
Bradley and other lawmakers were in Chicago recently to consider House Joint Resolution 45, put forth by powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), with bipartisan support. It would cap cost-of-living increases for state workers. It also says the size of the state’s workforce is not subject to collective bargaining.
On November 28 the House voted 84-29 for the resolution. On December 7 a state judge ruled raises must be paid, but Quinn announced the state would appeal the ruling.
The average Illinois state employee cost-of-living allowance during the past five years was 4.25 percent, while the Consumer Price Index has averaged an increase of 1.95 percent between 2007 and 2010, according to the resolution.
The General Assembly may have the “power of the purse,” but it has no say in what goes into contracts. The governor essentially can write checks that lawmakers can’t back.
For example, ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, now serving time in federal prison for unrelated corruption charges, negotiated a 10-year contract with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in 2002 that was called one of the “best” public-employee contracts in the nation.
“OK, so you got a very good contract, and now we’re in a calamity,” said Rep. Ed Sullivan (R-Mundelein). “Our concern from the General Assembly is we can’t afford it. We don’t want to get into more problems where we get sued because we don’t appropriate the money. That’s where we get involved. What’s the answer?”
A Quinn spokesman would not say if Quinn would abide by a cap set by the Legislature.
“This is a nonbinding resolution, and they took no action on it today. We were there to address questions and share information on immediate fiscal challenges and state of the budget,” said Abdon Pallasch, Quinn’s assistant budget director.
“To be clear, Gov. Quinn’s administration is focused on comprehensive pension reform to rescue the system, ensure public employees have access to benefits and prevent out of control pension costs from eating up core services like education and health care.”
‘Will of the House’
But even though it’s a nonbinding resolution, it’s still a message from the General Assembly to the governor and the unions.
“That’s all it is. It’s saying this is the will of the House. Just by holding hearings on it even before the vote on it they’re sending a message,” said Christopher Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, noting the “message” can be cranked up even stronger — by getting the Senate to pass a companion resolution or by passing actual legislation instead of a resolution.
“This is sort of a first step. It’s not just Quinn [that Madigan] is sending a message to. He’s sending a message to both sides in these negotiations. He’s trying to shore up Quinn’s backbone to not succumb [to pressure] and sending a message to the unions saying, ‘Look, if you didn’t notice, we’re pretty broke here and we’re hoping we don’t see any raises come through on this, or any significant raises,’” Mooney said.
Henry Bayer, director of AFSCME Council 31, which represents about 35,000 state workers, said those negotiations occurred through the collective-bargaining process “without any need for any House resolutions about what should take place at the bargaining table.
“We understand the realities. We also understand the budget problems the state is experiencing are not the result of collective bargaining, nor are they the result of unduly enriched state employees,” Bayer said. “The problems our state [is] confronting are due in large part . . . to a fiscal collapse that took place in 2008 that we can thank Wall Street and the financial community for.”
Quinn tried to lay off 2,600 AFSCME workers in 2009, but the union successfully sued to stop the layoffs. The two then worked out a plan to defer raises until July 2011 and cut costs through voluntary furloughs and health-care savings.
In 2010, Quinn, facing a tough gubernatorial election against Republican state Sen. Bill Brady, brokered a deal with AFSCME that called for no layoffs or state facility closures for two years. In exchange, AFSCME agreed to concessions on salary hikes, health-care costs and furlough days. The concessions amounted to about $400 million.
Quinn hailed it as a breakthrough in negotiations with a union that was not obligated to come to the bargaining table. Brady, however, called it a “scandalous” “pay-to-play” scheme, noting AFSCME endorsed Quinn days after the deal.
Jayette Bolinski (email@example.com ) writes for IllinoisWatchdog.org. Used with permission of IllinoisWatchdog.org.