- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

February 25, 2017

Belleville News-Democrat

Highest pay in nation not good enough for Illinois workers

Someone apparently needs to check the state of Illinois’ email system, because the 38,000 members of the American Federation of State, Callous, Me-First Employees failed to get the three messages from Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner that this state is so broke that we are in a crisis and cannot afford another $3 billion a year in raises.

The state’s largest employee union authorized a strike rather than take the same deal 20 other state unions already accepted.

They were the nation’s highest-paid state workers at $63,660 in 2015, which is double your private sector average Illinois salary of $32,206. Not to mention, they only work 37.5 hours a week, pay about one-fourth of their platinum health care coverage while taxpayers put in $15,000 a year and their early retirements at age 50 and their premium pensions are the main reasons Illinois taxpayers face a $130 billion liability.

It would be interesting to see them strike and watch what happens next. The folks manning the prisons and responsible for law enforcement can’t walk off, so public safety would be OK.

Illinois can legally replace striking workers, and Rauner’s office said there are already 18,000 applicants, including 2,000 veterans.

The unholy alliance between the state’s Democratic majority and the state employees financing their campaigns is what put us in the $130 billion pension hole and with $12.4 billion in unpaid state bills. We are fools if we make the tax burden even worse in Illinois, which already has the nation’s highest state and local taxes.

Jobs and workers are already fleeing Illinois. Missouri gains 20 people a day from Illinois, so which area with the largest population concentration outside Chicagoland stands to suffer the most?

Illinois property taxes last year averaged more than double Missouri’s. Missouri just became a right to work state.

That rumble you hear is the sound of even more moving vans starting. The thud that follows would be state AFSCME workers refusing to get out of the way.

___

February 27, 2017

Chicago Sun-Times

Legislature looking out for you - or somebody else?

Every time a state legislator casts a vote in Springfield, you want to believe he or she is doing what’s best for you, not for some campaign donor, lobbyist or business associate.

That’s why we elect them - to do the people’s business, first and always.

But in Illinois, as in other states where serving in the legislature is a part-time gig and almost everybody has another job, conflicts of interest are part of the DNA of the legislative process, even when lawmakers take care to abide by the rules of ethics. When so many legislators wear a second hat, quite frequently as lawyers, their loyalty to you, their constituents, gets put to the test.

A case study in how that works is the ethical conflicts faced by state Sen. Don Harmon, who is a lawyer.

Harmon is one of seven partners in a law firm, Burke Burns & Pinelli, that does a significant amount of legal work for state agencies, local governments and government workers’ pension funds. He says he does not handle any of this sort of legal work for the firm, nor does he financially benefit from it. His total pay from the firm, he says, is less than the governor’s $177,412 annual salary, which is the cap on his pay under Illinois ethics law because his firm gets state business.

But you can see the problem. It’s silly to pretend to a distinction between what’s good for Harmon’s law firm and what’s good for Harmon. Over time, the success of a firm is good for every partner, regardless of who gets paid what in the short-run. And it’s standard procedure in Illinois for people looking for clout in Springfield to do business with a firm that has the best political connections, such as a partner who also is a powerful legislator. That would explain how House Speaker Mike Madigan got rich.

So when we learn that Harmon’s law firm handles legal services for two of the biggest pension funds for City of Chicago retirees, we find it troubling that he himself cast a vote last year in favor of a bill that set new funding levels for one of the funds. Harmon’s explanation for not recusing himself - that the board of the pension fund had not taken a position on the bill - is beside the point. This is a conflict of interest with, at best, a single degree of separation.

A fair question then: Did Harmon vote in what he saw as your best interests, as a taxpayer in Illinois? Or in the pension fund’s best interests? You can’t even know.

Our purpose here is not to beat up on Harmon, who is thought to be among the more diligent and informed legislators in Springfield. Dozens of others senators and representatives, working also as lawyers or insurance brokers or business executives, regularly face conflicts of interest not addressed by the written ethics rules.

Our purpose is to call attention to the problem. Because it hides in plain sight.

It might help if Illinois had a legislative inspector general. This person would have the authority to rule whether legislators are at least complying with existing ethics rules.

But that post, to nobody’s surprise, has been left vacant for more than two years.

___

February 27, 2017

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

One more step toward a strike

Thousands of state public employees say they’re ready to walk out.

It’s looking more and more like the irresistible force has met the immovable object.

What’s next? It’s impossible to predict with certitude, but the chances of a first-ever strike by state employees are growing ever larger.

Last week, AFSCME Executive Director Roberta Lynch announced that union members voted by an overwhelming margin to authorize their negotiators to call a strike if management does not return to the bargaining table.

But judging from Gov. Bruce Rauner’s response to Lynch’s invitation to resume negotiations, that’s not going to happen.

“The labor board unanimously said we’re at impasse. We’ve been at impasse. Negotiations are done. Those days are gone,” he said.

Rauner is certainly correct about that. AFSCME and administration negotiators held 67 bargaining sessions, the longest in the parties’ history, and still were $3 billion apart. Because management said AFSCME showed “no sign of movement,” it asked the state’s labor board to declare an impasse, a decision allowing management to unilaterally impose its last, best and final offer.

After a long review process, the labor board agreed the parties had reached an impasse, setting the stage for the current showdown.

AFSCME has gone to court to challenge the labor board’s decision and obtained a court-ordered stay barring implementation of the new, four-year contract.

It’s also flexing its political muscles, pressuring management with the threat of a walkout by roughly 28,000 strike-eligible members.

The big question is, in the event of a strike, how many will refuse to work? If too many cross picket lines, the strike’s effect would be blunted. Management also has indicated it intends to continue operations as best it can and is willing to hire replacement workers.

As she has in the past, Lynch castigated Rauner. She stated, “We have come to this juncture for one reason only: the refusal of Gov. Rauner to negotiate with the union.”

That’s not quite right. Rauner has negotiated at length with AFSCME and concluded new contract agreements with 20 other unions representing state employees. What he has not done is deviate from his position that the state has no money to give and that AFSCME members must pay more for their health insurance. That position, so far, has been a nonstarter for AFSCME as well as a source of growing anger and frustration.

There no question that AFSCME members have few reasons to be happy with the contract proposal. It calls for a four-year wage freeze and increased health insurance payments. AFSCME also would have to give up its current 37.5-hour work week. Despite that, management argues that AFSCME members are “among the best-paid in the nation.”

But this dispute is way past the talking stage. Now it’s a power struggle. AFSCME members will have to decide if they’re willing to take the huge risks associated with going out on strike and trying to force management to buckle. For its part, management has indicated it won’t bend and can stand the pressure of a strike.

Nothing is going to happen right away. But threat of a strike is real, just one highlight of the many problems caused by Illinois’ desperate financial condition.

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