Political Rewind: Labor at Forefront in Springfield Thanks to Debt, Pensions
As we start a new week, it's always good to get caught up on state politics. Here's an easy guide to what happened last week.
Editor's Note: This article was created by aggregating news articles from Illinois Watchdog, formerly Illinois Statehouse News.
SPRINGFIELD — With the Labor Day weekend looming, unionized state employees found themselves tangled in much of the news that affected state government last week — from the state’s continued pension-reform gridlock to a dispute over raises for state workers.
S&P downgrades IL’s credit rating, citing pension stalemate
Standard and Poor’s nicked the state of Illinois’ credit rating Wednesday, citing its “weak pension funding levels and lack of action on reform measures.”
S&P downgraded Illinois from an A+ rating to an A rating. A lower credit rating means the state could pay more for interest when it borrows money.
“The downgrade also reflects continued financial weakness despite significant measures in the past two years to improve structural budget performance,” the credit-ratings service explained. On Aug. 24, Moody’s issued a statementsaying, “It remains to be seen whether the state has the political will to impose new pension reforms and other measures that restore fiscal strength in the near term.”
Lawmakers convened Aug. 17 here for a special session to address pension reform but failed to come to an agreement. Democrats and Republicans blamed each other for the stalemate.
Numerous state officials jumped to weigh in after the S&P announcement.
“Over and over again this summer, I made clear that if we do not act on pension reform, the state of Illinois would suffer the consequences. Now it has,” Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, said.
State Treasurer Dan Rutherford, a Republican, urged lawmakers to pass reform that will reverse the state’s pension crisis.
“It’s not even two years since the largest income tax increase in Illinois history, and those revenues have already been consumed by the escalating cost of the state’s pension systems,” he said. “Taxpayers are justifiably frustrated and angry over Springfield’s lack of action to protect their dollars.”
Judge rules state must set aside money for raises
A judge ruled Thursday that Illinois must set aside money for a possible order that it must pay union workers whose raises were canceled last year.
The state must submit vouchers to the Comptroller’s Office for unspent salary money in some agency budgets. The total exceeds $18 million, according to figures provided by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents thousands of state workers.
Gov. Pat Quinn canceled the raises last year, saying lawmakers did not include enough money for them in the approved budget. Officials later came up with the money to pay raises within six state agencies.
“The Quinn administration is doing everything possible to avoid honoring its contract with front-line state employees,” AFSCME executive director Henry Bayer said in a statement. “If the end of August passed without this order, the state would claim it ran out the clock and couldn’t be held accountable.”
Illinois ranks fourth among states with largest debt
Illinois has $271.1 billion worth of debt, coming in fourth among all 50 states, according to a new report by research group State Budget Solutions.
The debt includes unfunded pension liability, state retiree insurance benefits, budget gaps and outstanding bonds. All 50 states combined have $4.19 trillion worth of debt.
California ranks first with $617.6 billion in debt. New York was second with $300.1 billion. Texas owes $287 billion, and New Jersey owes $258 billion.
The report, which is has been released every year for the past three years, says states benefited during the past year from smaller budget gaps and reductions in unemployment trust fund loans from the federal government.
“Our states are in trouble, and no amount of budget gimmicks, political posturing or hiding bills will fix the massive debt that they face,” Bob Williams, president of State Budget Solutions, said in a Reuters report. “Drastic reforms, innovations and political courage are needed to put our states back on the road to fiscal survival.”
Vermont, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska have the smallest debt burdens, according to the report.
Quinn vetoes gambling expansion bill
Danville’s top city leader said he was disappointed but not surprised by Quinn’s veto of a major gambling-expansion bill Tuesday — an expansion that could funnel jobs and money into the border city’s economy.
But the veto isn’t going to stop Mayor Scott Eisenhauer and other officials from working the phones to get legislators on board with a veto override later this year.
“We’ll continue the fight. We start working the phones today, making sure that the senators and the representatives who have supported the casino expansion in the general session will continue to support it in the veto session,” Eisenhauer said Tuesday.
Quinn vetoed Senate Bill 1849, which would have allowed casinos to be built in Danville on the Illinois-Indiana border and Rockford in northern Illinois, as well as three new Chicago-area casinos. The legislation also would have authorized slot machines at horse-racing tracks.
Quinn repeatedly said the bill lacked strong ethical and oversight measures for the casino operators — a “glaring deficiency” he reiterated in his veto message. Quinn additionally said the bill lacked a ban on campaign money from gaming licensees and casino managers, and it did not ensure clear regulatory oversight for the proposed Chicago casino by the Illinois Gaming Board.
He also said it did not provide gaming revenue for education.
Quinn’s office frequently cites ‘preliminary drafts’ exemption to state FOIA law
Quinn’s office cited the “preliminary drafts” exemption to Illinois‘ open records law in one out of four Freedom of Information requests between April and July, enabling it to withhold documents that could shed light on a range of high-profile policy decisions, according to a review by Illinois Watchdog.
Quinn’s office withheld records about prison and developmental-center closures, consolidation of state police communications centers and shutting down animal disease testing facilities — each of which has affected taxpayers and the economy all over the state.
The “preliminary drafts” exemption was designed to allow policymakers to communicate honestly and openly without the risk of embarrassment. It allows officials to withhold “preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated.”
Quinn’s office may be using the exemption as it was intended, said Springfield attorney Don Craven, who specializes in open government matters. The problem, however, is that the broad exemption leaves taxpayers in the dark about the decision-making process. Illinoisans have no clue what factors were or were not considered in any given policy decision.
“Why did they come to the conclusion to close Jacksonville (developmental center)? You can’t tell what policy considerations went into that decision. You can’t tell what policy considerations were rejected as part of that decision-making process,” he said. “And all the administration gives you is, ‘We think Jacksonville should close; therefore, it closes.’ And it causes severe frustration.”
Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the “preliminary drafts” exemption has been part of the state’s open-records law for decades and that it allows “free and frank discussion among policy and decision makers” and “a wider range of ideas that could lead to more effective public policy.”
— Jayette Bolinski