Updated: May 6, 2012 8:17AM
It’s no secret that when it comes to public sector unions, I line up with the union-hated Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker rather than union-beloved Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.
Public sector unions continue to receive cost-of-living increases while their non-government neighbors take pay cuts. And it’s from those same cash-strapped and tax-burdened white- and blue-collar neighbors that the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees demands even more.
Walker’s efforts to loosen the public sector union’s reins on Wisconsin and local municipalities has been smeared as union busting. That’s understandable because for decades AFSCME and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) enjoyed a cozy relationship with the Wisconsin General Assembly. That ended in 2011.
Faced with a large budget deficit and economic recession, Walker had a choice — continue the status quo or make dramatic changes that would shake public unions’ comfort.
“In November 2010, the majority of Wisconsin voters resoundingly said ‘enough is enough’ to the status quo and put me in charge of a state that had been beholden to big-government special interests with a tax-and-spend mentality that created a $3.6 billion deficit,” Walker said this week in an email to supporters.
The changes made by Walker and the slight Republican majority in the Wisconsin General Assembly eliminated the deficit and allowed public employees the freedom of choice.
“Our reforms are allowing them to decide if they would like to spend more than a thousand dollars a year in union dues or keep their money,” Walker said. “We put a stop to the unions’ railroading of the taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.”
All that didn’t set well with the public employee unions, as thousands upon thousands of their members flocked to the Capitol and then turned their energies toward getting a recall election. Last week, a judge ruled that the recall will take place June 5, and first polls show Walker in for the fight of his political life.
This battle between Walker’s administration and AFSCME and SEIU is being watched by the nation, and especially by the state to the immediate south. Illinois faces unprecedented, unpaid pension debt to state workers and retirees along with unparalleled pressure to retain a workforce dependent upon government jobs.
Quinn’s budget proposal for fiscal 2013 calls for the closing of 14 state facilities — including prisons, juvenile detention centers and mental health facilities — with an expected loss of about 3,000 union jobs. On March 15, 50 AFSCME protests were held throughout the state, including at the juvenile detention center in Joliet that’s now scheduled to close.
In 2010, Quinn was elected governor of Illinois, with the help of hundreds of thousands of AFSCME campaign dollars. Quinn did everything he could to make the unions happy his first year in office but was forced to delay the union members’ contracted pay hikes when the Legislature rejected Quinn’s request to borrow funds and kick the proverbial budget can down the road.
This year, Quinn is still confronted by recession-stifled revenue while unemployment remains higher than in most Midwest states. The number of Illinoisans dependent on Medicaid, unemployment benefits and food stamps grows. Besides the closing of state facilities, Quinn has proposed $2 billion in Medicaid cutbacks.
Because Walker’s dramatic solutions are not an option in Illinois, the Quinn administration is looking elsewhere for ideas. The Illinois Policy Institute has proposed a budget that repeals the 2011 income tax increase, reduces the backlog of bills without borrowing and allows the state to meet its pension liabilities. It will involve cutting spending and reasonable across-the-board adaptations.
“Our approach puts taxpayers first, restrains spending and puts Illinois back on the path to fiscal solvency,” the institute’s executive director, Kristina Rasmussen, said. “Others in Springfield, including Senate Republicans, have put forth budget recommendations that sunset the tax hike as promised. Real solutions exist to right-size this budget.”
The institute believes both the Quinn and House budget plans are still too high at more than $33 billion. Illinois’ deep debt, including the mounting pension bill, will remain a problem in fiscal 2013.
Quinn is between the proverbial rock and a hard place. His AFSCME friends will not be happy with facility closings and employee layoffs.
Some AFSCME members suggest it is time for Illinois to leave a flat-tax system and move toward a progressive scale that demands more from the state’s wealthiest. The union abhors corporate tax breaks and employer credits as well as cuts that affect its dominion.
We live in strange times. Quinn faces a budget crisis and rising debt, a considerable amount of which stems from some of his biggest campaign contributors — public sector unions. Meanwhile, Walker boasts of no income tax increase, lower property taxes and a balanced fiscal 2013 budget.
And who between Quinn and Walker is facing historical political pressure and the possible removal from office? It’s not Quinn.
Fran Eaton is a Southland resident who co-founded and edits the conservative political blog, illinoisreview.com