Don't cave to Madigan: Why independent Democrats should put taxpayers first
On Wednesday, Illinois House members are scheduled to reconvene in Springfield. A showdown between Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan could unfold over a bill that would imperil the finances of this already debt-ravaged state. Adding to the intrigue? Campaign season officially kicks off this week, too, as lawmakers begin collecting petitions to get on the ballot for 2016.
Illinois — where policy and politics perpetually collide. Politics often wins.
A dangerous bill that would limit Rauner's authority to negotiate labor contracts — he's currently in talks with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — could get called for an override vote in the House.
This bill has one purpose: to block a governor who's trying to discipline an undisciplined state government. Rauner vetoed the bill because it would let AFSCME declare an impasse during contract talks and head to binding arbitration. Arbitrators — unelected middlemen unaccountable to taxpayers — would choose between AFSCME's demands and Rauner's retort. The Senate has voted to override Rauner's veto. If the House does the same, the bill is law.
Current Illinois labor law requires the two sides to strike a deal. To compromise. Former Gov. Pat Quinn spent more than a year negotiating with AFSCME and at one point grew so frustrated, he canceled AFSCME's existing contract, which he had extended several times during talks. Still, AFSCME didn't try to strip Quinn of his authority to sit at the table.
AFSCME is pushing hard for the override. The union believes an arbitrator would be more generous than Rauner is, potentially granting all of AFSCME's costly demands. So far those demands include salary increases of 11.5 percent — and up to 29 percent for certain positions when seniority is factored in — over four years, Rauner says.
Rauner has proposed a wage freeze, noting that state workers have received raises during the last decade that far outpaced those in the private sector. Seeing as the state already faces a $4 billion budget hole, Rauner says Illinois can't afford union demands that would add another $1.6 billion in spending.
The two sides have been talking since the contract expired June 30. Both agreed to extend its terms until Sept. 30.
That's the policy explanation of what's at stake. Now, the politics:
Madigan and Rauner are fighting a war for the future of Illinois. Rauner ran TV ads over the summer blaming Madigan for Springfield's financial implosion. Madigan has blocked nearly all of Rauner's legislative agenda.
So overriding Rauner's veto would thrill Madigan. Forget the risk to taxpayers and the unprecedented, possibly unconstitutional, intrusion into executive authority. Madigan wants to win.
To override, Madigan needs all 70 other Democrats to stand with him. That includes fiscally conservative, independent-minded Dems who normally would oppose so unfairly pitting the interests of labor leaders against those of taxpayers.
Consider Rep. Carol Sente of Vernon Hills, who's been pro-business and budget-conscious. She sponsored a 2011 bill that became law and assures that contracts governors and other statewide officials cut with unions only extend through their terms and don't hamstring their successors. AFSCME leaders fought her, but she stood up to them: "When a governor comes in, it's a new term. We want the opportunity for him or her not to have their hands tied," she said at the time.
A House override this week clearly would tie Rauner's hands.
Sente voted for the bill in May, but everyone knew Rauner would veto it. It was a safer vote then than it is now. Will she vote to override? We'll see. She and other swing Democrats are tight-lipped.
Adding to the intrigue: Sente faced a tough re-election campaign last fall against Republican Leslie Munger, whom Rauner later appointed state comptroller. The Democratic Party of Illinois, chaired by Madigan, spent more than $300,000 defending Sente's seat.
Two other Democrats, Jack Franks of Marengo and Andre Thapedi of Chicago, didn't vote on the bill in May. Like Sente, Franks has been an independent voice, as has former prosecutor Scott Drury of Highwood. Franks and Drury helped kill Madigan's proposal last year to tax millionaires. That is, both have bucked Madigan before.
This law would sunset in four years. It's aimed solely at Rauner, whom voters elected on the precise promise that he would take a tougher stance against unions during contract talks. If every Democrat caves to Madigan, those voters, aka taxpayers, will pay for every extra dollar the arbitrators award.
Republicans are expected to be unified against this bad bill. It only takes one Democrat — just one — to kill it. Will those independent, fiscally conservative Dems now bow to Madigan? Or will they acknowledge that this is an unprecedented swipe at a governor's ability to negotiate to the end on behalf of taxpayers?
Wednesday, if the override is called for a vote, we'll find out.
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