Lisa Madigan Could Hold The Key To Unlocking The Budget Impasse

The main reason the Illinois budget impasse has endured into its 10th month is an appellate court decision from last July that said all state employees could be paid even without a budget authorizing their paychecks.

At the time, Comptroller Leslie Munger said failure to continue paying the 63,000 employees would put the state out of compliance with federal labor law and would incur steep penalties. (The state could have stayed in compliance by paying the federal minimum wage only to employees deemed essential, but Munger's office argued that state government's data systems are so old and inefficient that payroll could not be broken down as required.)

Attorney Genera Lisa Madigan had argued that the state constitution states clearly that state government can't spend without authorization from the General Assembly. A Cook County judge sided with Madigan, but a St. Clair County judge a few days later ruled that failure to pay the employees would violate the state's protection of contracts.

Thus, the dreaded "government shutdown" in Illinois never really happened. With employees still on the job at drivers license facilities, state universities, state parks and other state government offices, the vast majority of government appeared to function just fine. With that source of public pressure removed, Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan could pursue their protracted standoff without large-scale repercussions. Only recently has unrest over lack of state funding at public universities begun to generate widespread concern over the budget deadlock.

But that could change in a hurry after a March 24 Illinois Supreme Court decision that appears to reject the reasoning of the St. Clair County courts.

In the lawsuit, AFSCME Council 31 sued the state for payment of contractually promised pay raises from 2011 that had never been delivered because the state said it didn't have the money. This led to a series of court actions (detailed on pages 3-6 of the decision) that ended up before the Illinois Supreme Court.

But the Supreme Court sided with the state, saying essentially that without a budget appropriation from the General Assembly, the state was not required to pay. The court cited "a well-defined and dominant public policy under which multiyear collective bargaining agreements are subject to the appropriation power of the State, a power which may only be exercised by the General Assembly."

In other words, the contractual protection cited in the St. Clair County case does not supersede the "dominant public policy" by which the General Assembly authorizes spending tax dollars.

Armed with this ruling from the state's highest court, Lisa Madigan would appear to have a strong foundation to revive her lawsuit from last summer. That could lead to a halt to state employee paychecks, which would lead to immediate and intense public outcry as the "mainstream" portions of state government abruptly closed.

That would lead, almost certainly, to a swift resolution of the budget impasse that is now into its 10th month.

"Currently we're reviewing the court's decision," said Madigan spokeswoman Annie Thompson.

Last summer, the offices of comptroller, aligned with Rauner, and attorney general were hostile toward each other as one sought to secure state employee pay and the other tried to stop it. Look for a return of hostilities should Madigan pursue this.