- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 29, 2016

November 26, 2016

The (Springfield) State Journal-Register

Time for AFSCME to put its cards on the table

In a month filled with horrible fiscal news, a ruling by the Illinois Labor Board could serve as the catalyst to starting the long process of improving the disaster otherwise known as the state’s finances.

The Labor Board unanimously ruled Nov. 15 contract talks between the state and Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are at an impasse. That allowed Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration to impose its contract terms on the union that represents about 38,000 state employees - and the governor started taking some of those steps the next day. The state notified workers of its intent to implement an employee merit pay plan and extend the work week to 40 hours before overtime is paid.

AFSCME has said it plans to appeal the ruling, and although the union never has gone on strike against the state, even the possibility of it has local economic development folks worried that residents could be apprehensive about spending just as the holiday season kicks into high gear.

The union says it wants Rauner to return to the bargaining table (they last met in January) and work on the “hard task of compromising” for a contract that should have started July 1, 2015.

Rauner is under no obligation to negotiate. We recommend that he does, but only - and this is mandatory in our eyes - if a hard-and-fast expiration date is set so both sides come ready to negotiate. AFSCME must come to the table with a proposal that indicates the union understands just how precarious Illinois’s finances are.

The unfunded liability for the five state-funded pension systems is now nearly $130 billion. The state’s backlog of unpaid bills stands at more than $10 billion. If spending continues as is and taxes are not increased, according to projections released last week from Rauner’s budget director, the state will end this fiscal year with $13.5 billion in unpaid bills. If the status quo remains for five years, the unpaid bill backlog will hit more than $47 billion.

Waking up from the state’s fiscal nightmare is going to cause pain. It’s unfair for pretty much everyone, and sadly, we’ve a long way to go before the agony ceases. Due to decades of poor decisions by Illinois politicians - like annually kicking down the road state-obligated pension payments - keeping the bigger picture in mind when considering any state expense commitment is mandatory.

AFSCME has a harder task than other unions in negotiations because of the breadth of employees it represents. While the governor’s office points to the 18 unions that have settled contract talks with it, those unions combined represent about 5,000 people and are more likely to represent one type of employee. AFSCME has employees who range from caregivers for people with disabilities to corrections officers, and there is a correspondingly huge range in pay.

AFSCME told this editorial board it hasn’t presented its last/best offer. Here’s their chance: Publicly release it. Let the public know what you’re asking for, so taxpayers can judge the merits.

The union should not dismiss some of the pragmatic proposals that the Rauner administration says are in its plan. Overtime kicking in after working 40 hours would mirror the federal standard. Getting 2 times pay, instead of 2.5 times pay, for working the “super holidays” of Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas seems generous as the private sector typically gets time and a half.

While the motivations might have been purely political, two moves by the Rauner administration have made it seem responsive and inclusive. The union wanted bereavement leave for AFSCME members for the death of a child or stepchild - Rauner says he will implement it. The merit pay plan for the first year will provide $1,000 bonuses based on attendance, and the governor wants union input on who should receive it for the remainder of the contract.

The union needs to provide a different narrative if it expects any public pressure on the governor to return to the bargaining table. AFSCME must show taxpayers that it understands cuts to personnel costs will be needed to help the state improve its financial situation. But this also is its chance to provide evidence for what a doubling of health care costs would mean for employees making $30,000 a year, and offer alternatives so we have something to compare. Make it compelling, so the governor’s administration would look unreasonable to not give it consideration.

An appeal will only drag out the conflict in court, and no one, not even AFSCME, wants a strike. A return to the bargaining table, with a firm date for an agreement set, could give taxpayers the decision they deserved months ago.


November 25, 2016

The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan

After passage of ‘Lockbox Amendment,’ still more questions than answers

Imagine you live in a place that passed an amendment to its state constitution, and 10 days after the election, no one is really sure what effect the amendment will have.

It couldn’t happen. It’s irrational.

But, what can we say? It’s Illinois.

The recently passed Illinois Transportation Taxes and Fees Lockbox Amendment received an overwhelming 79 percent of the vote. It required 60 percent for passage.

And, on the surface the amendment sounded like a good thing - all tax monies raised for transportation have to be spent for transportation. The funds cannot be swept by unscrupulous politicians to be used for other purposes.

The amendment had bipartisan support. It had the support of contractors and labor unions.

And, at first glance, it sounds like a no-brainer. That is, until you start peeling back the onion. And, you don’t have to go down many layers until your eyes start burning.

As it turns out, the amendment could have a devastating effect on the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The amendment states that no monies derived from taxes fees, excises or license taxes can be expended for anything other than costs of construction, reconstruction, maintenance repair and betterment of public highways, roads, streets, bridges, airports or anything relating to transportation.

Again, on its face, this sounds reasonable. The devil, as always, is in the details.

The IDNR is an agency that is still woefully understaffed. State parks are up to their picnic tables in debt. The one thing keeping IDNR afloat is the Sustainability Bill passed in 2012. The bill provided for a $2 surcharge on each license plate sold in Illinois. The money was earmarked for operation and maintenance of state parks.

The Sustainability Bill nets about $20 million each year for the IDNR.

Which brings us to an uncomfortable chicken and egg situation: Does the Lockbox Amendment trump the Sustainability Bill? Is the Sustainability Bill nullified? Can the money generated by the Sustainability Bill only be used for road projects within state parks?

No one seems to know.

Ask legislators about it and they stammer uncomfortably.

Ask the IDNR about it and you get a pat answer: “Our official position is we are reviewing potential impacts on DNR budget,” said IDNR spokesperson Tim Schweizer.

Frame the question differently, you get the same answer.

At present, this is what is known - nothing. What’s more, no one seems to have an idea when answers will be forthcoming. But, nearly 80 percent of us thought this would be a good idea.

Actually, there were other problems with the issue.

During the campaign season, the editorial board asked legislators why an amendment was necessary. Wouldn’t a law suffice? We also asked why the amendment covered just one tiny corner of the budget, instead of putting all dedicated funds under a single umbrella.

The answers we received then resemble what we know now - no one was quite sure.

Perhaps in 2018 we’ll be voting on amending the amendment.


November 27, 2016

Chicago Sun-Times

A nod to compromise, scholarships for undocumented

If you make the grade in an Illinois high school - and we’re talking about high marks in the classroom - you should be allowed to compete for scholarships at state universities. Typically, that is the case for state residents.

Undocumented immigrants, however, are left out no matter how successful they are in school and despite establishing Illinois residency to qualify for in-state tuition.

A bill in the Illinois House, which already passed in the Senate, offers a partial remedy for that problem and sets a good example for compromise in the Legislature, the kind we ought to see more of in Springfield and Washington. The House should pass it.

The Student ACCESS Bill would allow undocumented students to be candidates for scholarships and grants administered by four-year public universities, with one significant exception. Unauthorized immigrants would not be considered for Monetary Award Program grants. MAP grants usually cover a portion of tuition and fees for Illinois’ neediest students and do not have to be repaid.

The bill’s chief sponsors, Iris Martinez in the Senate and Elizabeth “Lisa” Hernandez in the House, hammered out the exclusion of MAP grants as a major concession to legislators on the fence about the bill.

We get the objection to the inclusion of MAP grants. Lawmakers are way behind schedule to fund the program in Illinois’ catastrophic budget war. To some, this is the wrong time to expand the candidate pool.

We see merit-based scholarships, grants and other awards differently. Our state universities have a long history of rewarding Illinois’ top students. Give undocumented immigrants a chance to earn them, same as their peers. Beyond benefiting the students, it would lift the entire state if we produce more doctors, nurses and engineers.

These students will tell you they are American in every way except on paper. They were brought to this country as children and had no say in their travels. But currently, they have no access to state or federal aid. The latter includes Pell grants, work-study programs and government loans. Those would stay off limits.

A handful of states, such as Washington and conservative Texas, have passed legislation to include the undocumented for state-based college aid.

Illinois should follow suit. Invest in the state’s best and brightest. Include all residents who earn it.


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