Illinois GOP targets political hiring; Democrats are wary

SHARE Illinois GOP targets political hiring; Democrats are wary

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois Republicans have unveiled legislation backed by Gov. Bruce Rauner they say will clean up state hiring rules that allow a governor to hand out jobs to loyal lieutenants instead of hiring strictly on merit.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Karen McConnaughay of St. Charles, is intended to rectify problems uncovered last year in a hiring scandal at the Illinois Department of Transportation under former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.

It defines the type of employee a governor may hire without restrictions, because he needs someone with a similar political affiliation to carry out his wishes. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized the need for such allegiance to the boss among high-ranking policymakers. In a 1990 case from Illinois known as “Rutan,” the high court decreed, however, that most government jobs should be open to anyone who can show proper ability and skill.

But majority Democrats in the General Assembly are wary. The bulk of McConnaughay’s measure is devoted to limits placed on collective bargaining units, going so far as to remove some employees from labor unions and empowering the government to transfer or dismiss those found to have been improperly hired at IDOT. They warn that the bill could lead to more politics in state hiring.

It also includes a “hiring reform” section which directs agencies under the governor to correct faulty job descriptions, revise procedures for determining exempt positions and seek to decertify union coverage where appropriate.

“It’s good legislation,” Rauner said last week. “We strongly support it. We look forward to having hearings about it.”

Posts for which a governor may hand-pick candidates based on loyalty, such as those handling confidential information or who speak publicly for the executive, are for the most part not covered by the Supreme Court rules. They’re referred to as Rutan-exempt.

In recent years, investigations showed IDOT hired more than 250 employees into jobs the agency described as performing duties that would exempt them from hiring rules, meaning IDOT could hire anyone it chose for them. But then some did routine work such as mowing grass or answering phones — jobs that should have been available to the general public. Many were transferred into jobs that had union protection, defeating the purpose of the politics exemption, which should have meant that they could be fired, as well as hired, at will.

“That was always the intention, that Rutan-exempt employees are at-will employees,” McConnaughay told The Associated Press last week. “That in itself is an automatic conflict with collective bargaining. … You can’t have it both ways.”

The GOP stance has the support of Noelle Brennan, a federal court monitor appointed to assess state hiring after the authors of a 45-year-old legal challenge to Chicago patronage practices trained their sights on IDOT. In her March interim report, Brennan called the matter an “inherent conflict.” She declined last week to comment on McConnaughay’s legislation.

The legislation tackles the issue by declaring that Rutan provisions trump collective bargaining unit rules “to ensure that political affiliation is not considered in filling Rutan-covered positions and that collective bargaining units are protected from improper political influence.”

The plan also changes the definition of who is eligible to join a union, including eliminating anyone who is exempt from Rutan hiring rules.

But simply removing them from bargaining units could make them purely political, expanding partisanship in state employment, according to the state council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The proposal “would result in stripping thousands of public employees of their right to be represented by a union,” AFSCME Council 31 spokesman Anders Lindall said, “with the perverse result, given the bill’s supposed purpose, of giving agencies even greater leeway to circumvent the merit system.” It would do “nothing to prevent future political hiring scandals,” he said.

To union-friendly Democrats, it could lead to “unintended consequences,” said Sen. Gary Forby of Benton, the chairman of the Labor Committee which will decide whether to give McConnaughay’s bill a hearing as early as next week. He said he will discuss the issues with McConnaughay.

“Given the history and sensitivity of this issue, we need to take some time and give this a closer look to make sure there are no unintended consequences,” Forby said. “For example, the last thing we would want is for something to increase the role of politics in government employment decisions.”

JOHN O’CONNOR, AP Political Writer

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