Unions and the Governor’s Pension Commission and an open letter to Scott Walker > Capitol Fax

17 Apr

“Political Intelligence”
by Rich Miller
TUESDAY, April 17, 2012


A GAME OF CHICKEN Labor union leaders said yesterday that they don’t want to waste time negotiating with the governor’s pension reform “working group.” The working group was supposed to produce a set of reforms by today, but that deadline will be missed as it struggles to come up with a workable plan to hold down pension costs that also has a chance of passing constitutional muster.

Publicly, the reason the unions give for refusing to talk is that they are no longer sure that the working group members – composed of one person from each legislative caucus plus a representative from the governor’s office – actually speak for the legislative leaders. “Despite previous assurances that the working group was empowered to speak for the Governor and all the legislative leaders, it is no longer clear that that is the case,” said Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan via press release over the weekend.

Unofficially, though, the union types are saying in private that they’ve never really believed the pension reform working group would have the final say in the high-profile issue. So, the union leaders confide, they don’t want to tip their hands on what it is that they really want and what they might possibly be willing to give up and then be forced to start from that unfavorable bargaining position when the top legislative leaders eventually engage. The bottom line is simple: Negotiating now would essentially put the unions at a distinct disadvantage if and or when the “real” process begins.

House Speaker Michael Madigan’s spokesman said yesterday that he was still under the impression that the working group speaks for the leaders and the governor. But the labor leaders pointed to the absence of any high-ranking members of legislative leadership on the group as proof that talks are next to worthless.

And despite public assurances that organized labor is being kept fully informed about what the working group is up to, top union leaders said yesterday that the group hasn’t shared much of anything with them.

“There’s nothing even in writing,” complained one labor official yesterday about the working group’s product. The official claimed that Gov. Pat Quinn’s office was “doing a nice job promoting the idea that there’s an actual proposal that’s close to being finalized,” but added, “Too bad it’s all spin.”

The unions have good reason to be skeptical. The last time the pension system was fundamentally changed (when all prospective government employees were put into a far less generous pension plan), the bill was written, debated, passed and signed into law faster than a speeding bullet. The unions were powerless to even slow down the process, let alone influence it, and the experience has left a strong and bitter aftertaste.

But there’s also a significant danger here. If the unions continue to refuse to negotiate now when given an opportunity – no matter how hollow that opportunity might be – their position might be used against them when a bill finally begins to move.

WALKER COMES TO TOWN Dear Gov. Scott Walker,

Welcome to Illinois, the state that provides most of Wisconsin’s tourist and speeding ticket revenues. I truly hope you enjoy your brief stopover in the Land of Lincoln as part of your national media blitz against that ugly recall campaign. I also hope that the various criminal investigations of your top aides aren’t negatively influenced by publicly associating with us. Prosecutors don’t generally like it when suspected bad guys start hanging out with known bad guys.

Illinois, as you know, is a state facing many challenges. We kinda suck, actually. We’ve had trouble electing honest governors for the past several decades. Our budget is far from balanced, despite a massive tax increase. Our unemployment rate is a continuing problem. The nasty geographical divide which has plagued our state for almost two centuries continues unabated. Our House Speaker turns 70 this Thursday, which is odd since it feels like he’s been our House Speaker for way more than 70 years.

But, hey, we have complicated problems partly because we’re a complicated state. Managing the Chicago area’s weekend playground and cheese-producing center can have its challenges, I suppose. But Wisconsin will never be in the running to be world class in anything except maybe professional football and weeks-long union protests.

And I’m not all that certain what you can teach us about balancing a budget, which is supposedly the focus of your speech today to the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. You inherited a deficit estimated at between $1.5 and $2 billion, then used tried and true accounting techniques to make it look like it was actually $3.6 billion, then made it disappear in part by using $1.5 billion in revenue growth and by continuing many of the same cuts used by your predecessor. Your state didn’t suffer through a massive political civil war before your election. Your state also had some pretty darned high tax rates which mostly allowed Wisconsin to keep up with spending pressures during the years leading up to the international financial collapse. And you had fairly responsible predecessors who didn’t deliberately try to spend the state into oblivion. Also, did I mention that the $3.6 billion was a two-year deficit, not a one-year problem? In other words, while you claimed to have inherited a disaster, it was more like somebody spilled some tap water on the kitchen floor. That barely qualifies as a mess. You want disasters? Try cleaning up after Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan. You had it easy, pal.

You’re also, of course, a national conservative hero for taking on the unions. But Illinois has found a way to do that without enduring months of civil unrest in our state capital. Our governor was endorsed by AFSCME, got a bunch of campaign money for doing so, proudly declared his affinity for labor while bashing you, then essentially did away with raises mandated in the union’s contract by claiming he didn’t have the money to fund them. You guys fought like cats and dogs for months over collective bargaining. Pat Quinn all but killed it off here with a simple press release and still gets to claim he’s a pro-union liberal.

And your feeble attempts to lure companies and jobs away from Illinois has met with little success despite all your claims of superiority. The hard truth, governor, is that Illinoisans like to spend weekends in Wisconsin, not lifetimes. So, sorry, man, but color me unimpressed with your little schtick.


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