AG's court filing deemed unnecessary by critics
The State Journal-Register (SJR) Editorial Board recently questioned Attorney General Lisa Madigan's timing in asking the St. Clair Circuit Court to terminate the injunction that ensures state employees' paychecks.
The circuit court ruled on the question of state employees' paychecks in July 2015, when the Illinois legislature was unable to pass a budget for the 2016 fiscal year. It clarified conflicting court orders and Comptroller Leslie Munger' responsibility to meet federal regulations and avoid penalties for not complying with the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act.
Madigan appealed the ruling, but the appellate court upheld the St. Clair Circuit Court ruling. Munger issued the state workers' paychecks and continued paying them through the ongoing budget impasse.
As the budget remained stalemated through fiscal year 2016 and a temporary "stopgap" budget was implemented for the first part of fiscal year 2017, state workers continued to receive paychecks. With the expiration of the stopgap budget on Dec. 31, however, the state was left without a budget again.
Madigan filed in district court on Jan. 26, seeking to lift the court order on Feb. 28. She filed on a Thursday, without a news conference or other public explanation for her action. It is widely speculated that she was attempting to force the legislature to pass another rushed and unbalanced budget without regard for its effects on Illinois taxpayers. Her effort to force the lawmakers to come to an agreement was called "unnecessary" by the SJR editorial.
While the editorial agreed with Madigan's contention that the legislature felt no urgency in passing a budget -- in part due to the court order and despite the approximately $10.7 billion in unpaid bills -- it disagreed with the timing.
"The consequences of her actions could be catastrophic," the SJR editorial said. "If a budget is not approved and the court agrees with Madigan's motion, state government could close. There are 63,000 state workers — not to mention those who need state services — who are now unlikely to consider any non-essential purchases if they think they aren't going to be paid starting March 1."
The recent progress toward compromise on a bipartisan budget package, hammered out by Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), makes Madigan's motives seem questionable. The senate leaders had put together a budget plan that would have raised the income tax and added a service tax, but also included reforms to the workers' compensation program, pension system and school funding, as well as a property tax freeze.
"Lawmakers were finally putting people before politics," according to the SJR editorial. "The tone of the conversation was slowly changing as politicians together sought solutions. The budget package lit a flame under lawmakers that was intensifying on its own as senators debated and amended the proposal in attempts to improve the plan. Madigan's actions Thursday added unneeded fuel to that fire: a glance at the statements from the usual political players shows the tentative bridges that had started being built could now come tumbling down."
While Gov. Bruce Rauner's spokeswoman, Catherine Kelly, spoke out against Madigan's effort to dissolve the preliminary injunction, AFSCME reminded workers of the governor's personal agenda to weaken workers' rights.
“State employees are on the job every day providing vital services that Illinois citizens depend on — often under difficult, even dangerous, conditions,” AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch said. “It is deeply disturbing when it appears that our state’s political leaders see these public service workers as no more than pawns in their games — failing to respect or value their vital work.”
As the editorial pointed out, if state employees aren't sure of March 1 paycheck, they are probably only going to pay essential bills. Discretionary spending will drop. Municipalities with high numbers of state workers, including Springfield, will see less consumer spending. This will lead to less revenue for the city and more economic pressure on residents.
In addition, the state's unpaid vendors, who were seeing a glimmer of hope – and checks – will be left waiting once again if the tentative agreements in the legislature are destroyed in the aftermath of Madigan's lone wolf action.