Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Madigan wants lawmakers involved in union contract negotiations

By Jamey Dunn

House Speaker Michael Madigan today unveiled a plan that he says would allow lawmakers to play a role in bargaining with unions for state employee contracts.

“Traditionally, prior governors have negotiated with [the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees] and the other unions without regard to the legislature. Traditionally, the governor would negotiate. The governor would come into agreement with the unions, and then subsequently, the legislature would be told this is the cost of the contract we just negotiated,” Madigan said. “They’d send the bill to us, and we’d be told pay the bill.”

Madigan seeks to change that. He introduced a resolution today that he said would “interject the legislature into collective bargaining.” If approved, the measure would allow the legislature to vote on a cap for wage increases when union contracts are up in 2012. It would also remove staffing levels from bargaining contracts. Madigan said this would prevent governors from making a deal like Quinn’s promise to AFSCME last year that there would be no layoffs until 2012. “Once there’s a contract in place that states a rate of pay, why the only venue for adjustment in a budget year is the size of the workforce. Gov. Quinn gave that away. I don’t think he should do that.”

Quinn has since gone back on that deal by announcing about 1,900 layoffs as part of a state facility closure plan. He also recently put a freeze on pay raises included in union contracts. Quinn said he was forced to do both because the legislature approved a budget that does not include enough money to fund essential government services through the end of the fiscal year. The unions and Quinn are fighting over the raises in court, and hearings on the proposed facility closures are currently under way throughout the state.

House members publicly grumbled about Quinn’s deal with AFSCME during the spring legislative session as they tried to craft a budget without spending more than their chamber’s admittedly conservative revenue estimates. Madigan tapped the same committee that produced the revenue estimate to come up with a percentage to use as the wage increases cap. “We have a choice. We can stand on the sidelines and let those people go off and do what they do and send us a bill. Or we can interject ourselves now and be present through the negotiations so that our position is known and understood,” Madigan said.

He added: “What we’re talking about is about a two-and-a-half-year obligation on spending. Well, I think the legislature has a rightful place in this bargaining,”

House members said they were unsure whether the resolution would have any binding effect on Quinn’s actions. However, they said it would send a message to the governor about how such agreements limit their budgeting power, especially when faced with revenues lowered by the recent economic crisis.

“The governor created his own problem by not only the raises but by guaranteeing no layoffs. I mean how do you do that combination in this kind of an environment?” asked Hutsonville Republican Rep. Roger Eddy. He said the resolution sends “the message to the governor that we can’t have that type of budgeting take place. We’re the appropriating agencies. We’re the arm of appropriation in the Constitution.”

Quinn has yet to take a position on the plan. “It’s an interesting suggestion. There will be many challenges confronting the state as we begin collective bargaining negotiations,” said a prepared statement from Quinn’s office. A call to AFSCME for comment was not returned.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Senate approved a bill today that is the first step to a potential override of Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto of a plan to upgrade the state’s electric grid.

Lawmakers approved a so-called trailer bill that would increase requirements on Commonwealth Edison and Ameren. Supporters of plan that would allow the companies to raise customers' rates in exchange for more than $3 billion in grid investments over the next 10 years hope that the changes will bring enough votes onto the original bill to override Quinn’s veto.

The utilities would be able to increase rates by up to 2.5 percent annually. Quinn said today the plan allows the companies to do “an end run” around the Illinois Commerce Commission, which rules on rate hikes. Quinn called the trailer bill — which among other changes, would require utilities to spend more money on grid upgrades focused on reliability and spend millions more annually on rate relief for low-income customers — “a hasty effort to try and paper over this bad bill.”

Oak Park Democratic Sen. Don Harmon, who sponsored the follow-up bill that passed today, said that the plan would not result in the automatic rate increases opponents have described. “You have to remember, it’s not net revenue to the utility. They are recovering costs that they have already incurred.” Harmon said any rate increases would be capped and would likely result in about $3 more per month for average customers.

However, he conceded that voting on a bill that would result in rate increases may be unpopular with voters. “This is one of those things that is difficult to explain to folks back home, and I understand that. … We all want reliable power delivered to our homes and businesses. The only way that’s going to happen is if the ratepayers pay for it.”

Lebanon Republican Rep. Kyle McCarter said that instead of raising rates on all customers, the legislature should set a price for smart meters — an important component of Smart Grid that allows customers to potentially save money by monitoring their power usage — and utilities could then give interested customers a chance to buy them. “Other states have chosen other ways to pay for this,” McCarter said. “If this smart grid is wonderful like we’re being told it is, surely everyone will ask to have a smart meter and be part of the smart grid.”

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