By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD — Growing acrimony between public employee unions and Illinois lawmakers over pension reform and other matters is a “natural conflict” that won’t affect their relationship in the long term, House Speaker Michael Madigan said Wednesday.
A host of proposed changes affecting state employees, including pension reform, reductions to retirement benefits and prison closures, brought hundreds of protesters to Springfield — officially “Governor’s Day,” or Democrat Day, at the Illinois State Fair.
A mobile sign truck accusing Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, of “breaking promises” to state employees was parked in the lot of a hotel where Democrats from all over the state gathered Wednesday for the Illinois Democratic County Chairmen’s Association breakfast.
“Well, promises were made, but if you don’t have the money to pay the promise, I think you have to step back, bring everybody together, talk reality and look to how we can restore fiscal stability to the systems and to the state of Illinois,” said Madigan, a Chicago Democrat.
Michael Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, said Quinn refuses to honor state workers’ collective-bargaining agreements, is trying to reduce pension benefits for workers and wants to lay off thousands of workers.
“We are extremely disturbed that at a time when collective-bargaining rights for public employees are under attack by a number of Republican governors, here in Illinois we have a Democratic governor who is undermining fundamental collective-bargaining rights for public employees,” Carrigan said.
Later, at the Governor’s Day rally on the director’s lawn at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, hundreds of people representing Illinois’ public employee unions clogged the lawn, where they booed and chanted “Liar” as Quinn took the stage to rally voters behind the Democratic Party. Minutes earlier, as U.S. Rep. Danny Davis spoke, a plane flew over the rally site pulling a banner that read, “Gov. Quinn: Unfair to workers,” interrupting Davis, a Democrat from Chicago.
Quinn, struggling to be heard over the boos and chants, responded by thanking the protesters for the “warm welcome” and said he respected their First Amendment right to be heard.
State lawmakers are scheduled to meet Friday in Springfield to consider possible pension reform. Quinn convened the special session, but political observers are skeptical about the possibility of any meaningful legislation passing.
Illinois’ unfunded pension liability is at least $83 billion — the highest of any state. If lawmakers don’t figure out a way to start paying down the debt, credit-rating agencies are poised to downgrade Illinois’ status, making it more difficult for the state to borrow money.
Madigan said Quinn and House minority leader Tom Cross, an Oswego Republican, have been talking and are scheduled to meet again Friday morning to discuss their differences on reform legislation.
One difference among lawmakers has been the issue the idea of shifting pension costs to local school districts. The state now picks up the pension costs, even though school districts are in control of salaries and opportunities for pension-benefit spikes. Some lawmakers want to shift the pension responsibility back to public school districts, while other lawmakers fear the obligation will be a budget buster for suburban and downstate schools.
The cost-shift is part of any “comprehensive” reform package, Madigan said.
“When you use the word ‘comprehensive,’ you’re talking about whether people that spend money should pay the bill,” he said. “There’s this American thought that if you spend money you should pay the bill. Well there are certain governmental units in Illinois that don’t follow it.”
Thursday is Republican Day at the fair.