Faint praise for a fainthearted resolution
Much of Illinois politics has become a contest of wills between a political establishment that is prone to wishful thinking and government employee unions with worldviews that border on fantasy. House Joint Resolution 45, or HJR 45, represents the latest attempt to wrest control of state spending away from the delusional and return it to the realm of cockeyed optimists. It’s good policy as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.
The resolution, which passed in the Illinois House of Representatives yesterday, purports to block any pay raises for employees during fiscal year 2013. It does so by specifying that the state will not appropriate any funds for new wage increases. But the resolution has at least one loophole: according to state Rep. Ed Sullivan, R-Mudelein, some employees will be allowed to receive raises as long as there are offsetting pay cuts elsewhere. The resolution also does not say what happens if the governor signs a union contract with a pay raise in it. In theory, state funds just shouldn’t be available, but there is no provision saying who will enforce the pay freeze or how, which leaves open the possibility that HJR 45 will prove to be purely symbolic. And, by its own terms, HJR 45 does not affect benefits.
Even if the General Assembly and governor are able to make HJR 45 stick, the one-year pay freeze is too little. The state has a backlog of $8 billion in unpaid bills and more than $200 billion in unfunded pension and retiree health care obligations. Much of the state’s fiscal crisis can be attributed to a heavily unionized government workforce whose wages and benefits are well out of line with what is found in the private sector. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, is still holding out for pay increases, a posture that is incredible given Illinois’ financial reality. A 10-percent, across-the-board pay cut would be more in keeping with the state’s actual financial and economic condition.
The General Assembly would do better to write a wage limitation directly into the state’s bargaining law and leave it there until the budget is balanced, debts are paid off and benefit obligations are fully funded. As long as lawmakers and the governor are able to make HJR 45 stick, it’s not a bad idea; but at best it is only a first step on a long journey. If they were being realistic, the state’s political leadership would be ready to go a lot further.