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Capitol Fax - Rich Miller

SPRINGFIELD SPOTLIGHT: Attorney general ups ante on budget brinksmanship

Court filing might quickly precipitate a shutdown of government

Court filing might quickly precipitate a shutdown of government

Question the timing all you want, but last week’s legal filing by Attorney General Lisa Madigan to stop paying state employee wages without an official appropriation is long overdue and is completely consistent with a 2016 Illinois Supreme Court ruling and with her (and the governor's) opposition to a similar lawsuit brought by social service providers.

Back in 2015, after the General Assembly and the governor couldn’t come to terms on a budget deal, AFSCME and other unions went to court and asked a judge to force the state to pay state workers even though there was no official appropriation for the salaries. That ruling remains in place today.

But this passage in the Illinois Constitution pretty much says it all: "The General Assembly by law shall make appropriations for all expenditures of public funds by the State."

So the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in March 2016 on a different case that the portion of AFSCME's contract with the state requiring payment of back wages could not be honored without a proper legislative appropriation. In other words, no appropriation, no payment, even with a contract.

It was a completely reasonable decision. The governor shouldn't be able to sign contracts and then force state payment without an actual appropriation. The potential for abuse is mind-blowing. Just imagine if Rod Blagojevich could have paid whomever he wanted, how much he wanted, without any legislative permission.

Gov. Bruce Rauner's position against a lawsuit brought by human service providers is also completely in line with that 2016 Supreme Court decision. The service providers say their signed state contracts mean they should be paid in full, even though the General Assembly hasn't approved the appropriations to do so.

Never once has Rauner said those providers ought to be paid without a formal budget in place. 

But there he was last week, saying that Attorney General Madigan’s motion would “directly harm” state workers while urging her to drop her legal motion. He’s been fighting the state employee unions since Day 1 and has said he wants to help social service groups, yet he wants state workers paid without an appropriation but doesn’t want social service providers paid the same way? 

Come on, man. I was born at night, but not last night.

What’s he really up to? Give me a minute, and I'll get to it.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin's reaction to Attorney General Madigan’s move appeared to fly in the face of common sense: "This decision clearly undermines the Legislature's duty to negotiate a bipartisan solution."

I was in Decatur to give a speech last week about the prospects for the Senate's much-touted "grand bargain" when I found out about the attorney general's motion. My speech, as initially written, gave that bipartisan effort no better than a 50-50 chance to spur a final deal. 

If the attorney general had filed her motion last year after the Supreme Court ruling, we wouldn't be in this mess today, and Leader Durkin most certainly knows it. Nothing focuses the General Assembly's bipartisan attention quite so much as a massive crisis.  

So, why didn't she file it last year? I'm told she wanted to give the General Assembly and the governor some time to work things out. They eventually agreed to a stopgap budget, so she laid low. But that stopgap budget expired at the end of December, and the General Assembly left town last week without making significant progress. 

There will naturally be widespread suspicions that Lisa Madigan acted on behalf of her father. The Illinois Republican Party explicitly made that very point when it claimed the attorney general "decided to put Speaker Madigan's power politics ahead of hard-working families in an effort to shut down state government."

That last sentence is the key here. The governor has done all he could to avoid a shutdown, because a shutdown means all the emphasis would then be on quickly passing a real budget and the tax hikes that go along with it to reopen the government’s shuttered doors.

And that means the governor will lose much (or most, or possibly even all) of his beloved "leverage" to force through his various anti-union/pro-business economic reforms.

And that leverage, whether he admits it or not, is the extreme pressure that’s been put on social service providers and the people they serve since this impasse began 18 long months ago. 

The attorney general has asked the judge to allow the governor and the General Assembly to delay any order until Feb. 28 to give them time to work out a deal. 

Get on it, folks.

Note to readers: Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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