Management & Labor

Amid 2 Years of No Budget in Illinois, 1 Thing Is Certain: State Workers' Paychecks

by | February 17, 2017

By Kim Geiger

State employees will continue to be paid in full after a downstate judge Thursday opted to keep checks flowing during Illinois' historic 20-month budget stalemate.

St. Clair County Circuit Judge Robert LeChien rejected a request from Attorney General Lisa Madigan that he undo a previous ruling, saying he didn't want to create a game of chicken between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrats who control the General Assembly, with state workers being left as victims in the game.

The decision is a victory for Rauner and for state employee unions, who each had pushed to keep the order in effect despite their feud over a new contract.

The request from the attorney general, whose father, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, is the governor's chief foe in the budget stalemate at the Capitol, was premised on a change in legal circumstances. The Illinois Supreme Court last March overturned a ruling in a different case that had been the legal basis for LeChien's order on state worker pay.

In that case, a lower court held that state workers were entitled to raises that had been promised in their collective bargaining agreement, even though the General Assembly had not approved enough spending to fund them. The state's high court disagreed, saying that union's four-year contract couldn't be used to usurp the legislature's appropriations powers.

Representing the attorney general's office, attorney Brett Legner argued that the high court's ruling in the other case left no rationale for the emergency order, which Legner contended has allowed Rauner and the Democratic lawmakers to avoid reaching a compromise on the budget because it's removed the prospect of a government shutdown.

"Time to say enough is enough," Legner said. "Other states actually deal with shutdowns when they don't have a budget."

In trying to persuade the judge to dissolve the order, Legner argued that doing so would "give the political process another chance to solve the matter," and that it's "not the court's job to unstick these branches (of government) and usurp the appropriation power (of the General Assembly)."

The judge, however, was more persuaded by the lawyer representing state worker unions, who opened by likening the situation to a dangerous game of "chicken."

"There are situations where courts have the power to come in and unstick the other branches of government," argued Steve Yokich, attorney for the unions.

If the order had been dissolved, Yokich argued, the government would have to break its workforce into two categories: Those who are essential to public safety and continued functioning of the state, and those who are not. "The idea that you could run a prison on minimal staffing as opposed to regular staffing is a very dangerous idea," Yokich argued.

Another argument that proved persuasive was Rauner's attorneys' contention that state employee pay was indeed authorized by the General Assembly when lawmakers passed a stopgap budget in June that kept state services funded through the end of last year. That budget contained a clause that said that it wasn't intended to override existing court orders.

In refusing to undo the order, LeChien said he didn't want to create "a game of chicken." He also suggested that the circumstances in the case of state worker pay were too unique to defer to last year's Supreme Court ruling in another case.

Madigan's office said in a statement that the attorney general would appeal the order.

"Under the current injunction, the state has spent over $3 billion in taxpayer money without any transparency or legislative debate as required by law," the statement said. "The governor is using this injunction to avoid following the constitution and enacting a budget, irreparably harming the people of Illinois."

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 praised the decision.

"Through all state government's chaos of the past two years, the people of Illinois have been able to rely on state workers to be there, providing important public services," AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch said in a statement. "This decision ensures that that commitment can continue."

(c)2017 the Chicago Tribune

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