Is Illinois next for a budget showdown with unions?

March 9, 2011

Produced by Eight Forty-Eight

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(Getty/Justin Sullivan)
Could Illinois see protests like those in Wisconsin?

As state lawmakers in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana battle over proposed changes to public employee benefits and bargaining rights, Illinois has remained largely absent from the growing debate. 

Some Democratic lawmakers from Wisconsin and Indiana have sought refuge in Illinois in recent weeks as they protest what they believe are draconian proposals to strip some public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights.  And while Illinois unions have sent supporters to the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol, Illinois has not been home to a showdown of its own thus far. 

But Illinois's fiscal situation is even more severe than Wisconsin's.   Despite its projected $3.6 billion deficit, Wisconsin has been hailed as a model for managing pension and health care liabilities by the non-partisan Pew Center on the States. By contrast,  Illinois has the largest unfunded pension liability in the nation, according to the Pew Center.  That's prompted some Illinois lawmakers to recommend reducing public employee pensions as a way to tackle the problem. 

So could state legislators and public workers in Illinois come to loggerheads?

That's not likely, according to Illinois Public Radio's Sean Crawford.  The veteran Statehouse reporter points out that Illinois' political climate is different from that found in Wisconsin, Ohio or Indiana.

"In most of those other states, Republicans control much of the process in state government," Crawford told Eight Forty-Eight's Alison Cuddy on Wednesday.  "Here in Illinois, that's not the case.  These are Democrats who control the entire process and in many cases have been rather friendly with unions - including public employee unions - throughout the years."  Crawford also notes that unions have supported many Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly as well.  

Even so, that doesn't mean there couldn't be tensions between state government and public employee unions in Illinois.

Last year, the Illinois Legislature approved a new two-tiered pension system that gives new state employees fewer benefits and lengthens the years of service required before retirement.  The legislation passed quickly and without much time for review - or for unions to mobilize against it.  The new measures took effect on January 1st.

However, some unions withheld support from some key House Democrats running for re-election last fall.  Crawford says that angered House Speaker Michael Madigan and he's floated the possibilty of further pension reforms since.

Even within the Democratic Party, however, differences exist.  While Madigan has talked about the possible need to reform public employee pensions, Democratic State Senate President John Cullerton is far less supportive.  He believes any move to reduce benefits for current employees would likely be ruled unconstitutional.

"There is a possibility certainty that benefits could be reduced," said Crawford.  "But I don't think we'll see something as severe as taking collective bargaining away from the unions. Unions are probably pretty safe, but they are certainly on guard."