SPRINGFIELD — Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn apparently can’t stay out of court because of decisions he’s made about state employee pay.

By Andrew Thomason

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn apparently can’t stay out of court because of decisions he’s made about state employee pay.

The Democratic governor was forced into court Tuesday to defend eliminating pay for the state’s 44 regional school superintendents. It marked the second time this summer he’s been sued over pay cuts to state employees.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a public-employee union, in July sued Quinn in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago over his decision to deny contracted pay raises to 30,000 unionized state employees.

Neither case is resolved.

“Whenever you take strong action, things like this happen,” said Kelly Kraft, Quinn’s budget spokeswoman.

In the AFSCME case, Quinn said the Legislature didn’t appropriate enough money to cover $75 million in raises.

When it comes to the regional superintendents case unfolding in the Sangamon County Circuit Court this week, the governor said he’d like to see local taxpayers cover the $11 million cost of the local service, instead of the salaries coming out of the state’s coffers.

Quinn insists that his actions are the outcome of the prolonged economic recession that has curbed state government’s ability to take in, and therefore spend, money.

Jim Nowlan, a research fellow from the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs in Urbana, said since the workers’ pay increases are governed by either a signed contract or statute, the lawsuits likely will come down in favor of the employees, but that doesn’t mean the resources are available to the state to cover the costs.

The two lawsuits over Quinn’s handling of state worker pay are more symptomatic of the economy than mismanagement, Nowlan said.

“The new reality is that times are tough, and it’s going to be difficult for the governor to manage his resources and allocate funds in a judicious way,” Nowlan said.

The recession of the past several years has highlighted Illinois malignant fiscal problems.

Overdue bills for schools, medical practitioners and local governments hover around $4 billion. Illinois state employees’ pensions system suffers from the worst underfunding in the nation. State estimates put the unfunded liability — how much the state owes in current and future pension payments versus how much resources are available — at more than $80 billion.

Several organizations, however, peg the unfunded liability for the state’s pension system much higher than $80 billion. The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C.-based free market think tank, puts the number at $190 billion.

An income tax increase passed in January that was estimated to bring in more than $6 billion annually likely will under perform early projections because of a national economy that continues to stumble, according to the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, a research arm of the Illinois Legislature.

Also, the apparent absence of Quinn from budget discussions after he delivered his proposed spending plan in February is one major contributing factor to the legal wrangling taking place, according to Nowlan.

Even with good communications between the Legislature and Quinn, fixing Illinois’ money problems is going to taking painful actions, according to John Jackson, a professor of political science at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

“I think (Quinn’s actions are) attempts to come to grips with what many have said for years, that is we have a structural deficit in Illinois, and you can’t attack that structural deficit without walking all over state employees,” Jackson said.

If the court rules against Quinn in either instance, he would have to pay the increases or the salaries until the state runs out of money used to cover those costs, Nowlan said. Quinn then would have to ask the Legislature for another shot of cash, or supplemental appropriation, to make up the difference.

“An appropriation is just the authority to spend. It doesn’t provide the money to spend, which is the problem,” Nowlan said.

He said the governor’s office likely hasn’t seen the end of the litigation over the budget.

“As the conflict over the budget intensifies, you’ll see more use of the courts in an effort to resolve what are otherwise differences of opinion on how to proceed with the budget,” Nowlan said.

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