People’s Court: How Judges Are Keeping Illinois (Mostly) Running During the Budget Impasse | WBEZ
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People’s Court: How Judges Are Keeping Illinois (Mostly) Running During the Budget Impasse

Illinois’ historic budget impasse has lasted nearly two years, but some taxpayers might not have even felt it. After all, drivers can still get their state licenses renewed, the lights are still on in government buildings, doctors are still accepting Medicaid patients and, of course, the state is still collecting taxes.

While Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic lawmakers bicker over a budget, state government has stayed running largely because judges have issued orders to keep the money flowing. (But with no budget, that spending adds to Illinois’ mountain of unpaid bills.)

Here’s a rundown of some of the big court actions that have kept many state residents from feeling the full effects of the budget impasse and how much they’re costing the cash-strapped state. 

State employee paychecks

After state lawmakers were unable to approve a budget in July 2015, the state’s largest public employee union went to court. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees asked a judge in downstate St. Clair County to force the state to keep paying state workers. The judge ordered the state to pay up. However, this case took a new twist in January, when state Attorney General Lisa Madigan said a recent Illinois Supreme Court decision meant state employees shouldn’t be paid unless there’s a budget. Madigan argued that if employees aren’t paid, then the threat of a shutdown would force Rauner and lawmakers to approve a budget. Both Rauner and AFSCME oppose Madigan’s filing.

Status: St. Clair County Judge Robert LeChien ruled against Madigan, and the case is now before the Illinois Appellate Court.

Cost of employee payroll: Approximately $4.6 billion in fiscal year 2016, according to a report by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.

State lawmaker paychecks

Illinois’ colossal backlog of bills means the state consistently pays its contractors late. Last April, then-state Comptroller Leslie Munger decided that if social services and other contractors had to wait to receive money, so should state lawmakers. After Munger lost to Democrat Susana Mendoza in the November election, six state representatives sued the comptroller’s office to get their paychecks on time. The lawmakers were represented by attorney Mike Kasper, a close ally of House Speaker Michael Madigan who serves as general counsel to the Illinois Democratic Party. They argued the delay in paychecks was a form of political coercion. Cook County Judge Rodolfo Garcia recently ruled in favor of the lawmakers, saying the comptroller does not have the discretion to decide when lawmakers should be paid. 

Status: Attorney General Madigan filed an appeal on Tuesday at Mendoza’s request.

Cost of lawmakers’ payroll: All combined, the payroll costs for state officials comes out to $1.2 million per month, according to the comptroller’s office. 

Social services with state contracts

The Pay Now Illinois coalition is what it sounds like: a group of several dozen social-service providers that have contracts with the state but haven’t been paid because there’s no budget. The groups provide services like counseling rape victims, taking care of senior citizens and helping people who are homeless. The coalition sued the state and argued service providers should be paid for work they’ve already completed. But Cook County Judge Rodolfo Garcia ruled last year against the coalition, siding with attorneys for the state who argued in part that a clause in their contracts said the state doesn’t have to pay its contractors if there’s no budget. 

At one point there were nearly 100 social service organizations attached to the lawsuit, but some dropped out after they received money from a temporary spending plan. One of the more famous plaintiffs was the Ounce of Prevention Fund, an education nonprofit run by Diana Rauner, the governor’s wife.

Status: There are two court cases related to the Pay Now Coalition: an appeal of the Cook County ruling that’s before the Illinois Appellate Court, and a second lawsuit in St. Clair County.

Amount judges have ordered the state to pay as a result of this lawsuit: $0

Illinois Department of Children and Family Services

The American Civil Liberties Union sued Illinois’ child welfare system, the Department of Children and Family Services, almost 30 years ago over inadequate care for children. In those three decades, the federal courts have monitored DCFS to make sure the department upholds certain standards of care for children. The federal court’s supervision of DCFS has shielded the department from budget cuts in the past, but after the budget impasse began, it took on additional meaning. Federal Judge Jorge Alonso determined in 2015 that the agency -- which is tasked with being the parent to vulnerable children -- should be funded, regardless of whether there’s a state budget.

Status: Judge Alonso continues to order the state to fund DCFS.

Amount the state has paid DCFS as a result of the consent decree: Approximately $427 million per year since July 2015, according to a state report.

Medicaid

Medicaid, which mostly provides healthcare to the poor, is one of the biggest costs to state government. Even without a state budget, federal Judge Joan Lefkow ordered the state to continue reimbursing doctors and hospitals for treating Medicaid patients. Considering Medicaid’s significant price tag, state lawmakers continue to warn that the longer the budget stalemate drags on, the more doctors and hospitals will be delayed in receiving Medicaid reimbursements.

Status: Judge Lefkow continues to order the state to fund Medicaid.

Amount the state has paid for Medicaid as a result of the consent decrees: Approximately $8.2 billion in fiscal year 2017, according to a state report.

Other consent decrees

Over the years, the federal courts have also stepped in to monitor the quality of services of several state-funded programs, including care for adults with disabilities and people who have serious mental illnesses. Because of the intervention of federal judges, the state must fund this programs regardless of the budget impasse. 

Status: Federal judges have showed no signs of allowing the state to stop paying these services. 

Amount the state has paid for a variety of other consent decrees: Approximately $3.6 billion per year since July 2015, according to a state report.

Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. You follow him at @tonyjarnold

Correction: This story originally stated that Attorney General Lisa Madigan, on behalf of the comptroller's office, filed an appeal to a ruling regarding lawmakers' paychecks on Wednesday. She filed the appeal on Tuesday. 

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