Friday, September 05, 2008

Friday follow-up

A few loose ends that we recently wrote about have been tied up today, while few more are about to reopen next week. The Illinois House returns to Springfield Wednesday and Thursday to debate funding for a statewide construction plan and to reverse some of the governor's recent actions.

AFSCME: It’s fair
First, a lot of rallies, meetings and political undertones potentially came to rest Friday as about 37,000 state employees have a new, agreed-upon contract with their top employer, Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration. Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 vocally opposed increases in their health care costs that they say the administration sought. Months of negotiations led the union to request a mediator to bring the two sides closer together.

The result is a four-year contract that gives members a 15.25 percent wage increase during the life of the contract, and retired employees will retain the pension and health benefits they received under the former contract. However, employees are going to pay more for their health insurance premiums, co-payments and deductibles. Cohen said monthly premiums will increase by $12 twice during the next four years. “The state was asking for huge amounts, and we ended up are what we feel are modest amounts,” Cohen said, later adding: “Our members feel it was fair. When they looked at that contract, it wasn’t everything they wanted, but it was fair.”

He said they didn’t get relief from mandatory overtime, which they expect to intensify as more workers are laid off and the remaining employees do “more with less,” an all too familiar phrase.

The governor’s office also said in a statement that the contract was “fair" for both taxpayers and state workers. "Both sides spent months in negotiations, and this contract is the result of that tireless work.”

AFSCME: It’s unfair
Council 31, however, still disagrees with the administration about a separate issue: closing a once troubled facility for people with developmental disabilities. William A. Howe Developmental Center and the Tinley Park Mental Health Center in Chicago's south suburbs were decertified by the federal government for reports of neglect and other deficiencies. The lack of federal certification means the state no longer receives federal money to operate the facilities. But the Illinois Department of Human Services continued to operate and fund the centers without a federal match. We wrote about the centers, as well as some new plans for caring for people with disabilities, in the June Illinois Issues magazine.

AFSCME opposes shuttering the center because it would leave about 800 employees without their state jobs and benefits. About 600 are AFSCME members, said John Cameron, Council 31 spokesman. Some families also opposed the closing because they fear for the continuity of care for their loved ones with few alternatives. The administration announced that it planned to move residents to other state institutions or to community-based services. Yet, Cameron said, this affects people with high needs of services, and the union questions whether the state has enough capacity to support community-based services that already are under-funded and have long waiting lists.

The Illinois Council on Developmental Disabilities said about 15,000 individuals are on a waiting list for such services. However, the council said shutting one door opens another. Instead of placing people with disabilities in more institutions, advocates look to community-based services as a way to improve what they describe as an outdated system. Read more in the organization’s report, “Blueprint for system redesign in Illinois.”

Home for the House days
State Rep. Jim Watson, a Jacksonville Republican and staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, flew home from Camp Pendleton, Calif., today after serving more than six months in Iraq. Watch Illinois Issues magazine print edition to read more about the work he did to help one province establish its first form of representative government, which the U.S. military just handed over to the Anbar Provincial Council on Labor Day.

Watson arrives home just in time for the Illinois House to reconvene in a special session to discuss funding a capital construction program by leasing the Illinois Lottery to private investors.

But even if the House approves a lottery deal — with some modifications to the governor’s original proposal — it still has to go to the Senate, which isn’t scheduled to come back to Springfield before November. And even if the Senate approved a measure to let the governor lease the lottery, then it still would take months to figure out the amount of money it would generate and the amount of money that the state would have to borrow. Only then would the House draft a spending plan for that money, according to Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat and deputy majority leader.

But voting on a lottery plan is a first step in that process. Expect the House to include such “safeguards" as requiring the state treasurer and comptroller to sign off on the lottery deal to ensure that it’s a good deal for taxpayers. Hannig also said an ethics portion would “ensure that there’s no temptation to engage in any kind of pay-to-play antics,” and they could limit the amount consultants and lawyers could make from the deal. “Hopefully we can pass this bill next week and send it to the Senate,” Hannig said. “And it isn’t that much different from what they have already passed.”

We’ll see about that.

The House also is expected consider some of the governor’s amendatory vetoes, including the unanimously approved ethics legislation that Blagojevich expanded. And House members could try to approve restoring some of the money the governor cut that resulted in hundreds of layoffs, closed state parks and closed state historic sites. But it would restore some, not all, of the cuts, Hannig said.

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