Lisa Madigan moves to shut down state government
Attempts to cut off state worker pay need not end in a tax hike.
Only in Illinois.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan is shaking up Springfield with her own political play after sitting on the sidelines throughout most of Illinois’ 18-month long budget battle. Her office filed court papers Jan. 26 demanding the state stop cutting paychecks to tens of thousands of state workers.
In the absence of a state budget, state-worker salaries have been funded under a 2015 court order from a St. Clair County judge.
But in March 2016, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in a separate case that thousands of state government workers were not entitled to back-pay raises owed to them because the General Assembly never appropriated those funds. That ruling set the precedent to allow Madigan to say that the 2015 court order should be removed. But the attorney general hasn’t exercised the Illinois Supreme Court’s precedent until now.
“While initially intended to avoid the risk of a state government shutdown as the Governor and General Assembly continued to negotiate a budget, the court’s order has removed any imperative for the executive and legislative branches to fulfill their basic constitutional obligations and resolve their budget impasse,” Madigan’s office told the court,” Madigan’s office said.
“Indeed, the partial appropriations legislation that was enacted to fund state government operations for the first half of Fiscal Year 2017 did not include authorization for payment of state employee wages. Instead, it rested on the explicit assumption that this court’s temporary order would continue to require the payment of state employees’ wages.”
What happens next
The 2016 court ruling puts the attorney general in a position to force the state to stop paying workers, since lawmakers haven’t passed a bill funding state-worker salaries. If the attorney general gets her way, state workers will go without pay until the General Assembly passes an appropriations bill. This could put pressure on state lawmakers to pass another unsustainable state budget like the proposal gaining traction in the Senate, which would subject Illinoisans to massive tax hikes with no real reform, long the priority of Lisa Madigan’s father, House Speaker Mike Madigan.
But the push to force through the Senate’s budget plan is based on a false choice: Lawmakers don’t have to pass this proposal to ensure state workers get paid.
Instead, the General Assembly could pass a clean appropriations bill for state-worker pay, rather than a deal as part of an increasingly complex and unwieldy budget package now taking form in the Illinois Senate.
Politicians get paid
While state workers could go without pay, lawmakers would still take home their paychecks (albeit delayed by the comptroller’s office).
That’s because of a law rammed through the General Assembly in 2014 under the watchful eye of the speaker.
Speaker Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton shepherded a law through the General Assembly exempting lawmaker salaries, operating expenses and pay increases from the annual appropriations process. In other words, these payments became “continuing appropriations,” meaning they must be specifically prohibited to stop their flowing to politicians’ pockets, and the lack of a state budget does not affect them.
The average salary for a state lawmaker in Illinois is more than $80,000, according to the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. And that’s for what is legally considered a part-time job.
Should lawmakers choose to pass a budget, Speaker Madigan and Cullerton’s law prohibits year-to-year cuts to lawmaker salaries and operating expenses. No other office or agency of state government has this sort of privilege.
With the foresight to pass these protections under former Gov. Pat Quinn, why didn’t the House and Senate leaders extend these privileges to groups now trying to survive the budget impasse? State politicians knew their own bottom lines might soon be on the chopping block, so they took them off the bargaining table altogether.
Notably, Rauner called on the General Assembly in July 2015 to pass a continuing appropriation to fund state worker salaries during the budget impasse.
Political power play
From a legal perspective, the attorney general’s main point in seeking to stop state-worker pay is that branches of government have failed to act in accordance with mandates under the state constitution. On its face, her petition is trying to get branches of state government to operate within the bounds of the Illinois Constitution.
But the move’s political consequences and timing cannot be ignored.