Daily Egyptian

Judge: No state budget, no full pay for Illinois workers

By Kim Geiger, Chicago Tribune

State employees cannot be paid more than federal minimum wage until lawmakers and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner agree on a spending plan, a Cook County judge ruled Tuesday.

The decision dealt a blow to the Republican governor’s pledge to keep workers paid in full while a broader political battle over the state budget and the governor’s pro-business, anti-union agenda plays out at the Capitol. Attorneys representing the Illinois comptroller’s office said they intend to appeal the decision.

The state, however, can continue spending money that isn’t subject to appropriation by the legislature, can keep issuing checks for expenses written into law and can continue to pay for the operations of the judicial branch, the judge ruled.

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The ruling came as Illinois prepares to enter a second week without a budget for the financial year that began July 1. After he vetoed much of the budget lawmakers sent to him, Rauner last week ordered state employees to continue reporting to work on their regular schedules and insisted the state had the authority to keep paying them in full.

That view was challenged by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who sought clarity from the court. Madigan is the daughter of Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, who is feuding with Rauner.

At the hearing, Madigan’s office argued the state comptroller cannot legally cut checks to workers because the General Assembly and the governor have not agreed on a spending plan that would authorize the payments. Allowing the checks to go out would violate the state constitution, Madigan’s office argued.

Attorneys for the comptroller’s office, headed by Rauner appointee Leslie Munger, countered that withholding pay from employees would violate federal law, which requires that employers pay their workers at least federal minimum wage. They said, however, that adjusting the payroll system to do so would take many months and asked the judge to authorize paying all workers in full.

The comptroller’s office pointed to a similar situation in 2007, when a court ordered payment of state workers while state government was without a budget. That ruling came after it became clear the state did not have the ability to make the payroll change to comply with federal law. But the court was clear that its decision was not intended to set a legal precedent.

Madigan’s office said the circumstances in 2007 were different because the court order came as a budget deal was imminent. In the current situation, Rauner and the Democrats who control the General Assembly remain far apart.

The legal question sparked an unusual alliance between Rauner and the unions representing state workers. The two have been battling over worker contracts and the broader limits on union power that are being sought by Rauner and are at the heart of the budget impasse. Union lawyers sided with the Rauner-allied comptroller’s office at Tuesday’s hearing, arguing that the situation warranted court intervention.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Diane Larsen delivered a swift ruling that ordered the comptroller’s office to pay workers the federal minimum wage, saying her court was constrained by the Illinois Constitution, which leaves it to the legislature to make appropriations.

Larsen also scolded the state for failing to put in place a system for making the payroll changes after the 2007 ordeal. Larsen said years of inaction on that issue was “unfortunate” but not a compelling legal reason to circumvent the state constitution.

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