Labor, casinos to dominate Illinois veto session

October 25, 2011

Fearing further setbacks to their negotiated contracts, members of organized labor are heading into the fall veto session this week with raised fists.

Their angst is shared by dozens of special interest groups including retirees, casino operators and state vendors competing for scarce revenue in what is expected to be a fast-paced reunion of the House and Senate starting today. The General Assembly isn’t scheduled to meet again until January.

Sponsors of a casino bill say they are introducing a new version after Gov. Pat Quinn threatened to veto the bill they sent him in May authorizing five new casinos and slots at horseracing tracks, along with slots at airports and a racing venue at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

Utility giants ComEd and Ameren have spent months lobbying lawmakers and doling out campaign checks to convince them to override Quinn’s veto of a bill that would raise electric rates in exchange for new infrastructure.   

And workers representing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who didn’t get promised pay raises in July are staging a demonstration Wednesday inside the Capitol.

They’re facing a quadruple whammy from Quinn and the legislature. Lawmakers are considering legislation that would require unionized workers to pay more into their retirement accounts and require retired employees to pay more for health insurance—coverage they now receive at little or no cost. The General Assembly also didn’t authorize enough spending in May to honor pay raises that were supposed to start in July, followed by two more pay increases in January and February. And state employees face the possible closure of seven state facilities, which could mean major job losses.

The grim forecast is giving AFSCME a widened vocabulary lately when describing Quinn, whom the group supported during his re-election campaign last year. Quinn won AFSCME’s endorsement after he promised he would not lay off state workers or close state buildings.

But after months of demonstrations in neighboring Wisconsin, Illinois’ labor movement finds itself in a similar face-off, regularly comparing Quinn to Gov. Scott Walker, who signed a bill in March stripping Wisconsin public employees of certain collective bargaining rights as a way to balance that state’s budget. Quinn faces $3 billion in unpaid bills and a dangerously under-funded pension system.

“We don’t give an inch to Quinn’s legal argument that he should be able to void collective bargaining agreements now or anytime in the future, just because he finds it inconvenient or the General Assembly didn’t do its job,” said Anders Lindall, spokesman for AFSCME Council 31.

Lindall said his organization will lobby lawmakers during the veto session for a supplemental appropriation of about $300 million to keep the facilities open that Quinn announced last month he would shutter. Three mental health centers—Singer in Rockford, Chester in southern Illinois and Tinley Park Mental Health Center—are slated for closure, along with a youth prison in Murphysboro, Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, and two centers for the developmentally disabled in Jacksonville and Jack Mabley in Dixon.

The money, union members say, could come from a pot of “savings” Quinn created this summer by using his veto pen to reduce spending in certain programs, including Medicaid. Some lawmakers, however, say that money must be spent on the state’s overdue bills.

Even if lawmakers move forward on casino expansion—a vote on a new bill that would add more regulatory oversight is expected sometime during the session—money to the state wouldn’t start flowing for at least a year. The legislation suffered a serious blow last week when Quinn announced he could not support a key piece of the bill allowing horseracing tracks to install slot machines.

Publicly, supporters of the bill, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said they would continue working on a compromise. Privately, they grumbled that the governor’s action essentially killed the bill.

Lawmakers also will be asked to override Quinn’s veto of a bill pushed by ComEd and downstate power provider Ameren that will raise consumer utility rates to pay for a system-wide upgrade. Without it, the companies say customers will face more power outages due to the outdated infrastructure.  The Senate Executive Committee overwhelmingly passed the bill Monday afternoon, even though Quinn has lambasted it repeatedly as anti-consumer.

In the meantime, state Sen. Dan Kotowski (D-Park Ridge) who leads a budget committee in the Senate said he will continue to look during veto session at the implementation of automatic transfers out, a longstanding practice in Illinois budgeting that allows certain sacred cows to get funded each year, without a thorough review. In all, automatic transfers support about $1 billion in programs.

“Every program needs to be reviewed for their performance,” he said. “Right now, they are not going through that process. It’s a big problem.”