Illinois budget gridlock threatens state worker paychecks


Gabriel de la Mora

Illinois budget gridlock threatens state worker paychecks

By Eric Bradach

State employees may find their paychecks on hold if a court grants Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s recent motion to put a halt on state worker payments, unless a budget passes by Feb. 28. 

The motion seeks to dissolve a preliminary injunction requiring the comptroller to authorize state employees’ payment in the absence of budget because of the governor and legislature’s failure to end the impasse.

“I have long hoped the legislature and the governor would pass and enact a budget,” Madigan said in a Jan. 26 press release. Unfortunately, that has not occurred. With a new legislative session now underway, this is an appropriate time to ask the Circuit Court to reconsider this order.”

According to the motion, filed in St. Clair County Jan. 26, the injunction has allowed the legislature and the governor to avoid their constitutional duties, which has resulted in “great public harm” and damages the integrity of the state’s constitution. In the absence of a budget, employees cannot be paid and those employees cannot be required to work without pay, the motion stated. 

Recently, Fitch Ratings, a major New York-based credit and bond rating firm, downgraded Illinois’ credit rating because of the budget stalemate and billions of dollars in unpaid bills, according to the firm’s website.

Usually, a governor would file a motion to shut down state employee pay in order to force movement in a state legislature, according to Chris Mooney, director of the Institute on Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Gov. Bruce Rauner has not done this because he seeks non-budgetary reforms, such as term limits for elected officials, that cannot easily be attached to a fast-tracked budget, Mooney said.   

“[The idea is] if the legislature does not authorize spending, then you cannot spend it,” he said. “But in order for a court to act, it takes someone to file suit, and nobody wanted to file a suit because of [inevitable criticism].”

Catherine Kelly, a spokeswoman for Rauner, issued a statement Jan. 26 and said the motion is “disappointing” because the Senate is close to reaching a bipartisan agreement on a balanced budget.

“This filing seeks to directly harm thousands of employee families and even more who rely on our dedicated state workers everyday,” Kelly said.

Trevor Gervais, the lead organizer for Common Cause Illinois, said Madigan’s motion was unsurprising in light of previous conflicts on this issue.

Gervais said because of the political battle between Rauner and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, he does not see a budget passing in time to save state worker paychecks.

“The best way to ensure state employees get paid is to pass a budget,” he said. “The budget shouldn’t depend upon whether the attorney general [threatens state workers pay] based on the current [situation].”

Rauner and Speaker Madigan, the attorney general’s stepfather, have been in a political tug-of-war since the governor took office in January 2015, causing more than a year and a half of budget stalemate.

According to John Patterson, a spokesman for Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, there was already urgency to fast-track a budget because the stopgap budget, a temporary fixture, expired Jan. 1. Therefore, there is no current state funding for services and programs such as MAP Grants.

“The senate president has said there is an urgent need to get a comprehensive state budget, and [Attorney General Madigan’s motion] would appear to add a greater sense of urgency,” Patterson said.

However, Republican Senate Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, said the motion could cause problems, not solutions.

“The legislature has been involved in very public, delicate negotiations,” Radogno said in a Jan. 30 emailed statement to The Chronicle. “The timing of this action could create an unnecessary crisis that could derail real compromise.”

In an effort to fix the state’s financial dilemma, Cullerton and Radogno have been working together prior to the attorney general’s motion to fast track a “grand bargain” budget package. It contains 13 bills and must all be passed together to go into effect.

Rauner applauded their cooperation during his State of the State address.

“Let’s build on that cooperation to achieve a truly balanced budget and changes that really move the needle on job creation and property tax relief,” Rauner said, as reported Jan. 25 by The Chronicle.

Patterson said the Senate leaders were pushing for a Jan. 25 vote but were stalled after facing concerns from organized labor and business groups. The Senate will be back in session Feb. 7, and Cullerton plans to have a vote on the “grand bargain” package that week, he added.

Mooney said it is common for large budget packages to be “picked to death” by special interest groups.

Illinois’ new comptroller and former Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza placed the blame on the Republican governor.

“Had Gov. Rauner met his constitutional duty to propose a balanced budget in 2015 or 2016, we would not be facing a scenario where the livelihoods of our frontline employees could be threatened in this way,” she said in a Jan. 26 press release.

Currently, Illinois has more than $10.5 billion in unpaid bills, according to the state comptroller’s website.

Mendoza said it is “shameful” for Illinois to operate like a “bankrupt business.” State employees work hard and they do not deserve to be used as “pawns” in a “manufactured budget impasse,” she added.

However, the comptroller said she would abide by the court’s ruling should it grant Attorney General Madigan’s request.

Another dilemma facing Illinois is the possibility of a strike by state employees. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union that represents about 75,000 Illinois state workers, began voting on whether to go on strike Jan. 30, according to a union press release from the same date.

The strike authorization vote will take place in all local unions until Feb. 19 and is a result of failed negotiations between the AFSCME and the governor for higher wages and lower health care premiums, according to the press release.

AFSCME did not respond for comment as of press time.

Gervais said if the union goes on strike, it would add greater urgency to pass a budget.

“The reality is without a budget there is nothing that Illinois can effectively do,” he said. What we have seen is a total breakdown of politics in the state of Illinois, and it is hurting communities.”