Executive Director Reports

Political games could spell calamity for Illinois

The University of Illinois is owed $317 million this year. University officials have put their three campuses on notice that they are on the verge of a major calamity.

Doctors, hospitals and others who provide medical services to active and retired state and university employees are waiting up to eight months for payment.

AFSCME members, who faithfully pay their health-care premiums each pay day, are being badgered by collection agencies. The situation will only get worse because the legislature underfunded health care by $600 million.

Medical vendors not paid by the end of November needn't bother to check their mailboxes until the new fiscal year begins in July. In short the state's group health plan faces the threat of collapse as vendors, tired of non-payment for services, decide they will no longer participate in a plan that doesn't compensate them.

Community agencies that provide care to individuals with developmental disabilities are waiting six months to be paid for their services. The possibility that a number of them will go under is very real.

And as large as the backlog of bills is for universities, group health and community agencies, it pales by comparison to the $60 billion that Illinois owes to its five state-funded pension funds. Our state is living on borrowed time and borrowed money.

This year the legislature borrowed the $3.5 billion to make the pension payment, which must be paid back next year along with $4 billion to cover its fiscal year 2010 pension tab.

These looming disasters are the consequence of an outmoded state tax structure and the most severe recession in 70 years.

But the state is not alone in its financial predicament. We've had layoffs or the threat of layoffs in Madison County, Peoria, Rockford, Aurora, Chicago and many other jurisdictions.

As bad as it's been here in Illinois, with demands for concessions and threats of service cuts and layoffs, we've not yet felt the full impact of the revenue collapse. For example:

So far, we're better off because the state's credit card is still being accepted. But when the due date comes, and Illinois can't meet even the minimum payment, all hell will break loose.

What we are experiencing now will seem like a minor headache compared to the migraine we'll endure unless the legislature and the governor pass a tax increase.

Yet it's taken as a given that there will be no vote on taxes before the Feb.3 primary because lawmakers don't want to jeopardize their election chances.

Though every past tax increase has come under a Republican governor, every one of the seven Republican gubernatorial candidates are opposing one now.

This year Senate Democrats stepped up to the plate and passed a bill to modernize the state's tax structure and provide needed funds for the state, local governments and school districts. Not one Republican voted for it.

The House was a different story. House Speaker Mike Madigan insisted he didn't have the votes, though most observers believe he can pass any bill he desires. The Republican leader Tom Cross refused to allow any members of his caucus to publicly support a tax bill, though privately some have said they are prepared to do just that. It's far from clear if the parties will strike a deal before the general election in November.

With the state's fiscal bomb about to explode, the House leaders are primarily concerned about the jobs of their members. Their battle is all about  winning enough seats to keep or retake the powerful Speaker's job.

There is a lesson we can learn from these guys. We need to be as single-minded about the jobs of our members as they are about the jobs of theirs.

They don't care how much pain and suffering is inflicted on Illinois residents if it'll keep their incumbents in office.

Preserving AFSCME members' jobs doesn't entail pain and suffering. To the contrary, it will ensure that the ill and aged are cared for; children are protected; prisons are safe; streets and water are clean; public health is protected; and our schools and libraries are open.

It's important to keep that difference in mind as we continue our push to modernize and reform the Illinois tax structure.

Let there be no question whose job is more important, theirs or ours.  Important not only to us, but to the people we serve.