Editorial: Reach that ‘grand bargain’ or watch workers get hurt

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Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan | Sun-Times file photo

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Once again, the inability of our state’s elected leaders to do their jobs threatens to hurt ordinary working people.

On Thursday, Attorney General Lisa Madigan set the wheels in motion for tens of thousands of state workers to stop being paid if a state budget is not approved by Feb. 28. Effectively, that would mean a government shutdown. Madigan did so, she explained, to create overwhelming pressure on the state Legislature and Gov. Bruce Rauner to finally cut a deal.

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Here’s our problem with that: Working people once again are being treated like pawns in a game of power by politicians who will never have to worry about living paycheck to paycheck. If Madigan’s gambit does not work, they will pay the price. And we can’t be sure of her motives. Maybe she’s the most honest of brokers, just trying to force an end to the budget impasse. Or maybe she’s working an angle with the Speaker of the Illinois House, Michael J. Madigan, who happens to be her father.

Lisa Madigan will object to that charge. She has worked hard over the years to show she runs her office independent of her father, and there is no evidence she’s doing his bidding now. But there also is no escaping the bad optics. Given that the Speaker and attorney general are father and daughter, skeptics will always suspect a tag team. And Lisa Madigan’s latest legal maneuver is giving her father’s number-one foe, Rauner, fits. A government shutdown threatens much of Rauner’s leverage to force pro-business reforms as part of a budget package.

Nonetheless, Attorney General Madigan appears to be on firm legal ground — and that means the clock is ticking. If a budget agreement is not reached, state workers may not get paid beginning in March.

The best course of action now for all involved is to get behind a “grand bargain” budget being pushed by Senate President John Cullerton and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. The particulars of the deal are in flux, but the concept is politically sound — everybody wins and everybody loses and to hell with the single-issue lobbyists.

If Democratic Cullerton and Republican Radogno, both strong champions of their respective parties’ values and agendas, can work something out, it’s hard to see how Rauner and Mike Madigan have excuses.

Attorney General Madigan filed a request to dissolve a 2015 preliminary court injunction that has allowed state workers to be paid during the budget impasse. Madigan could have filed that request a year ago, but there was a stop-gap spending plan in place at the time — it now has expired — and her office says she wanted to give the governor and Legislature time to work things out.

But now the attorney general believes, according to her filing, that the court injunction only makes it easier for the governor and the Legislature “to fail to fulfill their constitutional duties.” Because of the injunction, she said, they have not had to face “the real threat of a government shutdown.”

She cited a 2016 Illinois Supreme Court ruling that rejected the argument that withholding pay violates employee contracts. Without a proper appropriation of funds by the Legislature, the court concluded, there can be no payment.

As Rich Miller of the Capitol Fax blog argued on Friday, the court’s ruling makes good sense. If a governor could freely sign contracts and force the state to pay for those contracts, without regard to an appropriation by the Legislature, the potential for an abuse of powers is tremendous. “Just imagine,” Miller wrote, “if Rod Blagojevich could’ve done it.”

On Friday, Rauner vowed to do all he can to make sure employees continue to be paid. In an email to state workers, he charged that Lisa Madigan’s filing “seeks to directly harm thousands of employee families and even more who rely on your hard work every day.”

More power to the governor there. Legal as it may be — and well intended as it may be — Attorney General Madigan’s request to the court puts the paychecks of ordinary working people at risk. What did they do to deserve that?

But we see no heroes here, no winners. Only losers. Sooner or later, Illinois once again will have a budget, fully and properly funded. And there will be nothing magical about that budget. It will reflect the same tax hikes, spending cuts and policy reforms that could have been agreed upon almost two years ago.

People are being hurt for nothing.

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