Gov. Pat Quinn was met with demands from all sides as he hosted Governor’s Day at the Illinois state fair.
Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees gathered at the entrances to the fair today greeting visitors with signs and rallying passing drivers to honk their horns in support of the union. The group was protesting Quinn’s move to block a 2 percent pay raise for state employees in July. Quinn said lawmakers did not include money for raises in the budget they approved in May. The pay increase would have applied to 30,000 employees and cost the state approximately $75 million. An arbitrator ruled that the state must pay the raises, which are included in employees’ contracts. However, the state challenged the arbitrator's decision, and AFSCME filed a lawsuit, so the matter will likely be fought out in court.
Rachel Clarke, who retired after working 38 years for a state mental health facility, said she came out today to support her fellow AFSCME workers. “I’m hoping and praying that they don’t cut back on our benefits and our cost of living raises. … I hope and pray that the governor will see that our benefits are restored.”
But Quinn says his hands are tied by the budget numbers. “Well, you can’t give money that isn’t there. You can’t give out pay raises, which the General Assembly didn’t appropriate the money for. So that’s the long and the short of it. We want to get through this fiscal year with enough money to pay the salaries of the workers who carry out the public service duties.”
Clarke said the governor’s move to deny a provision of a contract reached through collective bargaining makes her worry about other benefits, such as pensions and health care. “I’m 69. I hope to still have 10 or 20 more years to live. And I know I’m going to need that money to get by, as well as my health care benefits. I can’t afford to have it cut, none of the employees can — especially us rank-and-file members that are at the lower end of the pay scale.”
Protesters seemed in good spirits, handing out balloons and calling out to passing motorists. “Does your horn on that thing work?” one protester chided a man driving a motorcycle stopped near the fair entrance. Clarke said that protesting union members did not want to disrupt the fair. “We’re simply fighting for what we think we deserve because we’ve earned it. We’ve been promised it. … We don’t want to be a negative influence. We want people to see us as positive because we’re good hard workers, and some of us do a very tough job.”
Representatives of the state’s horse racing industry also turned out at the fair today to lobby Quinn to sign a massive gaming expansion bill, Senate Bill 744, that passed in the final days of the spring legislative session.
Quinn has voiced concern that the bill, which calls for creating five new casinos as well as allowing slot machines at horse racing tracks, is too large of an expansion. Quinn supports a casino in Chicago, but he will not say if he could stomach other casinos and slots at racetracks to get one. “I don’t think we can have what’s called cannibalization of gaming in Illinois, where so many different places [have] gambling that it ends up hurting the overall products. So I think we have to do this in a prudent way.”
Quinn is particularly unhappy with a provision of the bill that would allow slots at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. “I was never excited about that, “ he said today.
Former Gov. Jim Edgar, who lobbied Quinn to sign the bill on behalf of the state’s horse racing and breeding industry, said removing pieces of the plan could be tricky. “You can’t wait until the bill’s passed, then come up with all these changes. … I’m not sure if you take anything out of there, there’s the votes to approve this. This barely passed, and it’s not like [Quinn] can persuade many legislators to go his way.”
Edgar, who was hanging out by the harness racing stables at the fair, said racing jobs are leaving Illinois, and money from slots would allow tracks to offer larger purses to winners and compete with other states. “For the horse racing industry, I think it’s critical. As I told him, he can either save the industry or let the industry disappear on this bill,” Edgar said. “In harness [racing], we’ve lost a lot of our good drivers, who’ve moved out of state, and a lot of the horseman have moved out of the state. Thoroughbreds — we’re just not competitive either, compared to Indiana and some other states.”
The former governor estimated that the legislation would save 30,000 racing jobs that he says are in jeopardy. He added that the state, with billions of dollars in unpaid bills piling up, needs the new revenue the expansion would provide. “The reality is that you may not get another chance at this. If you try to do a lot of changes, you could kill the whole thing, and then you have nothing. … We just need leadership. We need people making tough decisions.”
Senate President John Cullerton said he is confident that a deal can be reached in the fall veto session. “The governor’s not against the bill. We’ve been talking to the governor. He wants to make some changes. That’s what we’re going to be doing.”
Cullerton said lawmakers are open to tightening regulation in the bill and giving the Illinois Gaming Board more oversight power. “He wants to maybe make it a little smaller; we’d be happy to do that, as well.”
However, Cullerton said of allowing slots at racetracks, “I think that’s kind of an important part of the bill.” He said that lawmakers are working with the governor on a follow-up bill that would make changes to SB 744, allowing Quinn to sign the original legislation along with some changes. Cullerton, who put a procedural hold on SB 744, said that he will not release the legislation until a trailer bill is approved. “That way, we have both bills on the governor’s desk at the same time. … We expect to do this all by the [end of] the veto session.”
Meanwhile, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White announced today that he would seek another term in 2014. White had announced before last year’s general election that he would not run again.
“I want you to know that I’m going to run for reelection. I said the last time I was here that this would be my last tour of duty. Well, you know I’m a former military man, and I believe that when there’s a mission before you, you see it from its beginning to its conclusion. … You never jump out of an airplane and stop half way. It’s all the way,” said White, who has served in his current office for 13 years.