Thursday, April 28, 2011

House members call for opening union contracts

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn should ask public employee unions to open their contracts early and find ways to reduce the state’s personnel costs to avoid drastic cuts to human services, according to members of a House committee working to craft a human services budget.

Chicago Democratic Rep. Sarah Feigenholtz, who heads the House Human Services Appropriations Committee, called on Quinn today to ask the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) if it would be open to renegotiating state workers’ contracts now instead of when they expire on June 30, 2012. “It’s like asking someone on a date; you have to pick up the phone. …  Maybe there is an opportunity. You don’t know. Let’s try. Let’s try.”

House members voiced frustration that their hands are tied when it comes to personnel costs and resentment at being tasked with finding cuts to programs that would be both painful and unpopular.

Rep. Michelle Mussman, a Schaumburg Democrat, raised concerns that although that state cannot lay off any workers under a deal Quinn made with the unions last fall, it may have to make such deep cuts that the very programs they administer would be nonexistent. “This is an entire giant component that we have absolutely no control over. [Legislators] are asking to have a modicum of oversight of control. We would like be a player. … At this moment in time, we are supporting a network of employees, but we are cutting all of the tasks we are asking them to do. So we maintain a staff, but we have nothing for them to do if we cut all the programs that we are asking them to run.”

Feigenholtz said no area of spending is safe from cuts, and she would prefer to negotiate the unions than attempt to strong-arm them. “There will be shared sacrifice across the board. … I would much prefer that they be at the table, frankly. And I think a lot of members of this committee don’t want to just hack things off because that’s not how we should do things. We should get people to the table.”

Julie Hamos, director of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, said that because union contracts expire on June 30, 2012, legislators should jump in and become involved with negotiations. “Julie, there will be no programs left by June 2012. …We have to pass a budget by June 1, [2011], so, as Elvis said, ‘It’s now or never,’” Feigenholtz responded.

The Department of Human Services planned its budget around Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal, but under the House’s revenue estimate, which is about $1 billion less than Quinn’s estimate, Human Services Director Michelle Saddler said the department would have to cut 6.5 percent.

Saddler said the department cut its operating budget by 6 percent for the current fiscal yea,r and raises required by union contracts will cost the department about $47 million for Fiscal Year 2012. She said DHS cannot bear further cuts to overhead costs not related to union contracts.

Quinn’s budget calls for no state dollars to be spent on addiction treatment for patients not covered by Medicaid, and DHS eliminated all but “minimal” services to those who do not have Medicaid coverage. Under the governor’s proposed budget for next fiscal year, the department says about 26,000 people with mental illnesses would no longer get help paying for their medications.

Some committee members said that while the state does all it can to bring in federal dollars through Medicaid matching funds, they disagree with cutting off those in need of services that the federal governments won’t help pay for. “We didn’t agree that especially in cases of substance abuse and mental health that people who are non-Medicid, that they should be left in the gutters, in the streets,” said Rep. Patti Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican.

Members and rhetoric became headed when talk tuned to potential cuts deeper than the ones proposed in Quinn’s budget. In light of the additional cuts required by the House, the Department of Human Services may close the Illinois School for the Deaf and the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired, both located in Jacksonville.

Dr. Robert Kilbury, director of the Division of Rehabilitation Services at DHS, said the department had no choice but to consider the closures because of the House’s leaner budget plan. “We were asked to come up with approximately a $54 million cut in addition to the low level that the governor’s budget proposed,” Kilbury said. He added that in-home services would also see a cut that would kick 6,400 people out of the program. “If you’re wanting us to reduce the general revenue fund 6.5 percent from where the governor proposed it, those are the kind of proposals we’re going to be making.”

However, members repeated calls that the state should look to cutting the pay and benefits of union workers instead of closing facilities and cutting programs. “You must take me for a damn fool,” Greenville Republican Rep. Ron Stephens said to Kilbury. “I’m telling you to go back and look closer. Look at everything you can do. … I don’t know who is more vulnerable in Illinois. Tell them who they are. Bring in your AFSCME and have them stand before us and tell us that they are more vulnerable than the people at these [schools.]”

Anders Lindall, spokesperson for AFSCME Council 31, said: “It's wrong for politicians to demand unequal sacrifice from disability caregivers, child protection workers, correctional officers and other state employees who provide health care, human services and public safety across Illinois. These AFSCME members already reopened their contract to defer pay increases and take unpaid furloughs, and they pay the same taxes as everyone else. … Irresponsible politicians caused the state’s budget problems, and working people shouldn’t be punished for them.”

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