Attorney General Lisa Madigan's new attempt to stop state worker paychecks from going out on time came more than 10 months after Illinois' high court overruled what her office called the "sole legal basis" for salaries being paid during the historic budget impasse.
The move caught both Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the largest state worker union — usually foes in the ongoing power struggle at the Capitol — by surprise. And it came from an often-cautious state attorney general, who has stayed out of the daily grind of the budget fight, which is being waged on one side by her father, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general said Friday "now is the best time" to revisit the ruling, which has kept state government from shutting down during the 18-month budget stalemate. Madigan contends it also has allowed the politicians at the center of the fight to avoid the sense of urgency needed to foster a deal.
Rauner on Friday suggested that she was acting on political motivations to "create a crisis" and give Democrats the upper hand in budget negotiations. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees leader Roberta Lynch, in a letter to members, blasted the move as a "harmful and irresponsible legal maneuver."
Maura Possley, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, said the uproar over the decision from multiple sides showed she didn't intend to help any one side.
"We filed this petition because of a lack of action by everyone involved, it seems to be making everyone unhappy," Possley said.
Attorney General Madigan's motion asked the court to lift its order and stop state salaries at the end of February in the absence of a budget. Possley said the idea was to try to spark action on the part of Rauner and lawmakers.
"Asking the court to impose a deadline for the governor and legislature to do their jobs will solve the crisis, not create it," she said. "The governor and legislature can resolve this situation at any time and they have had ample time to do that."
The action came as the state Senate went home Thursday after delaying plans to vote on sweeping legislation aimed at ending the budget standoff, and as AFSCME is scheduled to start voting Monday on whether to strike over lack of a new contract with the Rauner administration. The prospect of a halt in paychecks could change the calculus for workers as they weigh the wisdom of waging a first-of-its-kind strike.
The payroll issue dates back to the early days of the budget stalemate, in July 2015, when AFSCME and 12 other unions asked a downstate St. Clair County Circuit Court judge to require that the state keep payroll flowing for public employees despite a lack of a spending plan. The unions argued that failing to pay workers in full was a violation of their collective bargaining agreements and that a higher court had reached a similar conclusion in a different case related to back pay withheld from workers under former Gov. Pat Quinn.
The St. Clair County order contradicted an earlier ruling from a Cook County judge in which Madigan argued state workers should not be paid beyond the $7.25-per-hour federal minimum wage. At the time, she said the state should comply with federal labor laws when Illinois was without a budget.
Gov. Bruce Rauner greets attendees after he arrives for the Fueling America's Economic Growth 2017 Summit at Hotel Allegro in Chicago on Jan. 27, 2017.
(Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)
The Illinois Supreme Court later overturned the ruling in that back pay case, saying that the workers weren't entitled to pay lawmakers haven't approved. The ruling sparked speculation that the attorney general might go back to the St. Clair County judge and try to lift the order that had been keeping state workers paid during the budget war. But she stayed out of it until this week.
Last summer Rauner and Democrats who control the Illinois General Assembly agreed to a stopgap spending measure that would keep other state government spending going through the end of the year. The idea was to get past the November election, which was preoccupying lawmakers tied up with their campaigns.
That temporary spending plan expired Jan. 1, returning the state to its awkward position of being able to pay state worker salaries while stiffing nonprofit service providers and starving universities and college students of cash and grants.
Madigan, in her Thursday court filing, contended she's trying to raise the pressure to get a budget in place, saying the judge's order "has allowed the legislative and executive branches to fail to fulfill their constitutional duties without facing the real threat of a government shutdown."
"With no possibility of a government shutdown to force action by the legislative and executive branches, the state has continued to operate without a budget to fund many services provided by vendors and grantees," Madigan's court paperwork read. "Those vendors and grantees and the many Illinoisans they serve are bearing the brunt of this egregious and untenable budget impasse. This situation does not usually happen for long on the federal level or in other states precisely because the possibility of a government shutdown eventually leads to the passage and enactment of a budget."
Rauner on Friday questioned Madigan for what he suggested was a "direct attempt to cause a crisis, to force a shutdown of the government, to force another stopgap spending plan, short-term, unbalanced, incomplete, as a step to force a tax hike without any changes to our broken system."
"I hope that's not what this is. I hope the attorney general will reconsider," Rauner said in a statement he delivered to reporters after speaking at a Chamber of Commerce event in downtown Chicago. Rauner declined to answer questions from reporters.
AFSCME leader Lynch, in the letter to her members, vowed to go to court and try to keep paychecks moving.
"I want you to know that AFSCME is prepared to return to court in opposition to the Attorney General's motion and to pursue every available legal means to halt her action," she wrote. "The Attorney General is justifying her action by citing the urgent need for a resolution of the state budget stalemate. ... However, the need for a budget resolution can in no way justify the Attorney General's harmful and irresponsible legal maneuver."
Speaker Madigan's office, meanwhile, said there was no coordination between the speaker and the attorney general.
"It seems completely illogical," said Speaker Madigan spokesman Steve Brown. "The office of the attorney general acts on its own."
A spokesman for Senate President John Cullerton said the attorney general's move underscores the need for a budget resolution sooner rather than later.
"This would appear to add to that sense of urgency," said spokesman John Patterson.
The Chicago Tribune's Haley BeMiller contributed.