Bill Brady is crying foul over a deal Gov. Pat Quinn struck with AFSCME Council 31, the union that represents roughly 50,000 state employees. Does he have a case?
In Illinois, pols constantly criticize their rivals for engaging in "pay-to-play" politics, and often with good reason. It was only 18 months ago when the state's governor was ousted from office after allegedly factoring campaign fundraising into countless executive decisions and using government to generate personal profit.
During his years in public service, Gov. Pat Quinn has generally kept his nose out of such shady dealings. But with a tight election a mere six weeks away, critics of the administration -- including GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady -- are crying foul over a deal the governor struck with AFSCME Council 31, the union that represents roughly 50,000 state employees. Do Brady and his cohorts have a case? Let's look at the specifics:
This new controversy involves a tentative agreement the state reached with AFSCME on September 13, which the press learned about this week. Under the deal (PDF), first reported by Crain's, the Quinn administration has promised it won't cut any state jobs or close any facilities until June 30, 2012. It also won't re-open the union's existing collective bargaining agreement to alter how much employees contribute to their health care insurance premiums. In exchange, the union will make changes to its group health insurance plan that will save $70 million and will cut an additional $50 million in expenses, either by reducing mandatory overtime, expanding a voluntary furlough program, and/or possibly restructuring a scheduled pay increase.
What's raising eyebrows is the issue of timing. Two days after AFSCME decided to carry out the agreement, they joined several other major labor groups and endorsed Quinn for governor. During the Democratic primary, the union had remained neutral. They were also highly critical of the pension reform bill Quinn signed into law this spring. And Capitol Fax reported that Gov. Quinn's budget director, David Vaught, attended the union's endorsement meeting after the deal was sealed.
Yesterday morning, the Tribune titled its editorial on the topic "Selling Out Illinois," characterizing the deal as a quid-pro-quo that will "tie the hands of a future governor with a no-layoffs mandate." In an initial statement, Brady himself said the deal is reminiscent of "pay-to-play politics." Following a speech in Chicago Tuesday, the Republican laid into his opponent, calling it a "secret deal." Watch:
Quinn has been hammered on similar grounds before. Earlier this summer, the governor issued an amendatory veto of legislation restructuring operations at McCormick Place after taking in money from the Teamsters, who likely would have benefited from his proposed changes. (It was quickly overridden by the General Assembly.) Quinn later pressured road builders to settle a strike with two construction unions one month after receiving campaign donations for the labor groups involved.
Yet the deal in question didn't come out of the blue. It's the product of negotiations that began 14 months ago, when AFSCME filed a lawsuit to prevent 2,600 layoffs Gov. Quinn threatened to carry out as a budget-saving manuever. "That we've been negotiating this long underscores how fictitious this manufactured political controversy really is," says AFSCME Council 31 spokesperson Anders Lindall.
Once AFSCME went ahead with its court action, the two sides entered into mediated bargaining and emerged this past January with a compromise: If the union would identify health care savings and defer a portion of two scheduled wage raises, Quinn would not seek lay-offs.
The latest pact is just an extension of that January détente. Working with the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, the union indeed found $70 million worth of health care inefficiencies they now have promised to root out. (The state, for example, can offer incentives for workers to use generic -- and not name-brand -- prescription drugs.) And the layoff moratorium will run just one year longer than originally planned, so long as the two parties agree by the end of October on the best way to cut that extra $50 million. If not, the deal is void.
Gov. Quinn defended his decision, telling the media that it will save the state "tens of millions of dollars." Watch it:
Brady's criticism that the new governor's financial flexibility will be hindered by the deal, the union argues, is also over-simplistic. For decades, public sector unions have entered into collective bargaining agreements with one administration that extends into a new term. When Quinn assumed his position as the state's chief executive, AFSCME was working under a contract ironed out by Blagojevich. That's the nature of public employee contracts; their length is rarely determined by political turnover. If Brady is elected this fall, he can renegotiate with AFSCME officials after his term begins. (It's not as if he's sketched out a serious budget plan, anyway.)
Undoubtedly, every stakeholder in state government must share in the pain required to repair the state's broken budget. AFSCME, for what it's worth, have deferred pay raises and swallowed a pension reform package that will reduce modest retirement benefits for future staffers. (It's not as if they make ludicrous salaries to begin with.) For their trouble, they've become, in the words of Comptroller Dan Hynes, "the scapegoats of the budget crisis." Now, their credibility is being tarnished once again.
The political optics of this deal are not perfect, to say the least. With an election on the horizon and the state facing a massive deficit, the administration's budget director probably should not be meddling in union politics, even if it's "not unusual," as the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform's Cindi Canary tells the Tribune, for cabinet members to "also play a political role." But the development is also more complicated than some of the critics have let on. "This plan saves money, maintains services, and saves jobs. I'm not sure what they don't like about it," says Lindall. "Maybe its collective bargaining [critics] don't like."
That's certainly one possibility.