- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 12, 2016

July 10, 2016

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

No impasse

There is no end in sight for contract talks with the state’s largest union.

State employees represented by AFSCME can put their strike plans on hold now that the state’s Labor Relations Board has rejected management’s request that it declare talks have reached an impasse.

Meeting in a special session Friday, the five-member board unanimously rejected Gov. Bruce Rauner’s request to bypass an administrative law judge’s recommendation and find there is no benefit to be gained by further negotiations between the parties.

The board’s decision blocks, at least for now, management’s option to impose its final offer on the union, a move that has led to widespread strike talk in Springfield.

The issue now goes back to the hearing officer, who will make a recommendation on the impasse question that the board can either accept or reject.

Union leaders were delighted with the board’s decision because, according to AFSCME leader Roberta Lynch, “it maintains a process designed to allow for full consideration of the complex issues in this case.”

Jason Barclay, counsel to the governor, expressed disappointment but said he will “continue to respect and follow the Labor Board’s decisions throughout.”

The board’s action may have surprised union supporters, but it’s hard not to conclude that contract talks are at an impasse. Indeed, it seems obvious.

AFSCME and management have met nearly 70 times without success.

While the union has indicated it’s negotiating in good faith, Barclay has been quoted as saying that AFSCME “has categorically rejected the governor’s core proposals.”

At the same time, the union has accused Rauner of not negotiating in good faith and trying to break the union.

In response, Rauner has noted that he’s reached collective bargaining agreements with 17 unions representing 5,000 state employees.

AFSCME is, by far, the state’s largest union, representing nearly 40,000 state employees.

Used to winning generous salary and benefit packages in contract talks, AFSCME is facing different circumstances in its negotiations with Rauner. He has said repeatedly that Illinois is broke and has no money to give AFSCME.

The contract agreements the governor’s office reached with the other unions provide no salary increases for four years but do include financial incentives in the form of bonuses.

It’s that approach that AFSCME has flatly rejected, setting the stage for acrimony both at the negotiating table and in the General Assembly.

AFSCME is intent on dragging matters out as long as it can because its contract, which expired a year ago, was extended with its benefit provisions intact, most importantly its health insurance benefits. Rauner is asking AFSCME members to pay more for their health insurance in any new agreement.

While not a towering defeat, the board’s ruling is a serious setback for Rauner, another reminder that trying to change the status quo is a tremendous challenge.


July 7, 2016

(Arlington Heights) Daily Herald

Merging county offices deserves, requires careful study

When it comes to government offices, consolidation is always an interesting word. Depending on the circumstances, it may or may not be a good word.

That mindset should apply to any consolidation proposal, and it certainly is worth remembering as Cook County voters get set to consider merging the recorder of deeds and clerk’s offices, with voters in Kane County possibly not far behind.

On its face, the Cook County proposal offered by Chicago Democrat John Fritchey seems naturally appealing. The primary functions of both offices are the keeping and monitoring of public records, so why wouldn’t it follow that all the data should be overseen under one system?

County Board member Tim Schneider, a Bartlett Republican, suggests the move could save county taxpayers $1 million a year. That’s no insignificant sum, though admittedly in a county budget measured in the billions and facing, as President Toni Preckwinkle forecast just last week, a deficit of nearly $175 million, it’s not a game-changer.

Nor, for that matter, is it a slam dunk. While efficiencies can often be obtained by eliminating duplications within similar offices, it’s also true that combining two operations — especially in a county as prone to empire building as Cook — can result in one large bureau that’s harder for the public to monitor and control.

Much depends in all cases on the individuals in charge, which can be an argument both for and against consolidation. In the case of Cook County, Clerk David Orr long has maintained an efficient and responsive operation, and in her first term on the job, Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough has been praised for instilling a once-bloated office with a new, professional ethos and cut expenses by more than $2 million. Both are elected officials, and at least ostensibly, must answer to voters if they don’t perform well. Would removing one of them from the equation justify the reduction in accountability the current system provides?

Maybe. But also maybe not.

In Kane County, where the Cook proposal spurred interest in a similar merger, officials say the recorder’s office is almost entirely funded through fees, not taxes. Would assuming all those fees into a merged clerk’s office guarantee they would be applied wisely and help reduce overall costs?

Possibly. But again, possibly not.

We, like most taxpayers, appreciate the idea of consolidating governments, so we’re certainly intrigued by a possible opportunity to wring some added efficiency out of extravagant operations. But we’re going to use the next few months before Nov. 8 to make sure that what sounds like a good move will in fact offer more accountability and lower cost.

We encourage voters to do the same.


July 6, 2016

Chicago Sun-Times

Put higher education on strong path to future

Gov. Rauner and the Legislature have shoved buckets under the leaking financial roofs of Illinois’ public universities by appropriating nearly $1 billion as part of the state’s stopgap budget.

But let’s be clear. Those buckets are nothing like a long-term solution. After slicing away at financial support for higher education for years, the state for most of the past year then cut off funding altogether.

Our state universities are now all but begging for stable and predictable funding. They want firm budgetary commitments of five years or more. Only then can they plan responsibly. If not, they will struggle - as they already are - to simply retain top talent and recruit top students.

To compete and prosper, a state must have a quality public university system, including a great flagship campus. Fortunately, past generations of Illinois leaders built up a strong network of universities, including a flagship school in the University of Illinois that is respected around the world. We can build on that legacy.

In a global knowledge economy, Illinois’ future relies on a highly educated workforce whose ideas can be transformed into jobs and revenue. Of the 20,000 or so students who graduate each year from one of the three University of Illinois campuses, 70 percent remain in the state. If more of those students head elsewhere, the state will suffer. And, on that score, we frankly don’t understand the argument, increasingly heard, that it is the students who benefit - so let them pay the full load of their education alone. As if a public university were nothing but a shopping mall.

A 2015 study by the Idaho firm Economic Modeling Specialists International concluded that for every dollar taxpayers spend on the University of Illinois, they earn an average annual return of 19.3 percent. Try getting that kind of average return in your 401K.

Even at a time of tight finances, the U. of I. is aiming high. Under new president Timothy Killeen, the university has adopted a forward-looking, aspirational “framework” that lists goals ranging from a more diverse student body and faculty to an expansion of global programs and more partnerships with Illinois businesses.

But Springfield must be a willing partner. In response to year-after-year funding cuts, tuition has risen to the point that Illinois has become the nation’s fourth most expensive state for public higher education. In May, the Associated Press reported that worries about the stability of funding have driven down applications at Illinois’ public universities while Western Michigan University expects to enroll its largest freshman class from Illinois ever and Murray State University in Kentucky reports applications from some Illinois border counties are up as much as 40 percent.

Even as the U. of I. goes into overdrive to retain its top faculty, it has lost some of its best professors at least partly because of the budget crisis. If things don’t settle down, Killeen told the Sun-Times Editorial Board Wednesday, he worries he will lose more. You can only take annual budget cuts so long before the damage is permanent.

Just how helpful are those fiscal buckets the state provided? Even combined with an earlier round of emergency funding, the stopgap budget reduces funding for most of Illinois’ public universities by nearly 20 percent from the previous year. Before that, the U. of I.’s funding dropped from $804 milli0n in Fiscal Year 2002 to $649 million in Fiscal Year 2015. And future funding for all of higher education is uncertain.

It took generations to build Illinois’ reputation for excellence in public higher education. We are in danger of squandering that legacy in no time at all.

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