Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Legislature could be back in session soon

By  Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn wants the General Assembly back in session to address legal questions around a big economic driver for the state.

Quinn said lawmakers should return on September 13 to address changes to work rules at McCormick Place, a convention facility in Chicago that draws almost 3 million people each year. A federal court ruled that some of the changes the legislature approved in May 2010 violate collective bargaining rights. Quinn said he wants to bring stakeholders to the table and sort out a compromise.

“We’re talking to everybody. We’re not just talking only to the unions. We’re going to talk to the contractors who are involved in these conventions, as well,” Quinn said at a Chicago news conference today. “We’re not going to have a cloud of uncertainty fall over our convention, tourism, hospitality business in Illinois. I think it important that we not just have the hope of conventions dissipate because of uncertainty about the law.”

He said two things he would like to see included in new legislation are strong auditing of costs charged by the facility as well as an “exhibitors’ bill of rights” to protect customers.

Quinn urged legislators to return voluntarily — as they did for one day last month to approve construction spending — to take up the issue so the state can avoid a costlier special session. He said if lawmakers do return next month, budget issues would not be a priority. “I think [veto legislative session] is a likely time for a review of where the budget stands and where it can be improved. … I see the budget matters coming up more in late October early November.”

The next step in the ongoing fight over pay raises between Quinn and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31 comes tomorrow when both sides meet in circuit court to hash out a schedule for moving forward. AFSCME asked the circuit court to toss out the case because it filed a lawsuit in federal court, and a judge could consider the motion tomorrow. “AFSCME members do the real work of state government, such as caring for the disabled, preventing child abuse, guarding state prisons and much more,” Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31 said in a written statement. “These hard-working men and women deserve to know that their employer, the governor, will keep his word and honor his commitments under the law.” According to AFSCME, almost 30,000 employees are due a pay increase.

Quinn says he cannot give state workers the scheduled pay increase, which would cost the sate approximately $75 million, because the state legislature did not include the money in its approved budget. “The legislators decided they did not want to fund pay raises for state employees in these agencies. They made that conscious decision. This is not a surprise. ... A number of the legislative members made it clear that they did not favor pay raises,” Quinn said. Unions officials argue that state workers have already agreed to defer pay increases to help the state during its budget crisis, taken voluntary furlough days and sought other cost savings

Quinn said he signed a budget that he knew was “flawed” to keep Republicans out of the budgeting process. After May 31, a three-fifths majority would have been needed to pass the budget, and Republicans could have had more leverage to push for bigger cuts. “I did not want that crowd to have an opportunity to enact that kind of budget that would have been hurtful to our state,” he said.

Quinn added that if the state were to give the pay increase, vital state operations would suffer. “We have to have the core services of government maintained throughout the year. We can’t run short of money and have four or five months where there’s no money to pay anybody their whole salary, let alone a raise. And these are important services that the people need, and so we’ll have to monitor it as we go through the year.”

An arbitrator ruled that Quinn must honor the collective bargaining contract negotiated with the union, but a judge granted the state a stay until the matter can be sorted out it court.

Meanwhile, the state is $700 million behind on payments to local school districts, according a report from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) released today. Mary Fergus, an ISBE spokesperson, said the number is an improvement from a high point of nearly $1 billion dollars in late payments. However, Fergus said, “the $1 billion [backlog] was a little bit on the extreme end.”

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