Next steps on retiree health benefits – Last month, the Illinois Supreme Court came down squarely on the side of the state constitution when it overturned a lower court’s dismissal of lawsuits brought by AFSCME and other groups challenging the constitutionality of SB 1313, legislation that diminished retiree health care benefits by allowing the state to impose new and higher premium costs on current retirees. In a 6-1 bipartisan ruling, the Supreme Court found that those benefits are protected by the pension clause of the state constitution.
“For us to hold that such benefits are not among the benefits of membership protected by the constitution would require us to construe article XIII, section 5, in a way that the plain language of the provision does not support,” the court wrote. “We may not rewrite the pension protection clause to include restrictions and limitations that the drafters did not express and the citizens of Illinois did not approve.”
The IFT, FOP and INA joined AFSCME in filing the challenge which was forcefully argued before the Supreme Court by Steve Yokich of Cornfield and Feldman, the law firm that has represented our union in legal matters for more than 40 years.
Although the Supreme Court’s ruling represents a tremendous victory for public employees and retirees, it does not mean that the retiree health care case is “won.” The circuit court had dismissed the lawsuit without even granting a hearing. The justices have now overturned that dismissal and remanded the case back to the circuit court requiring that it be heard.
The case will officially be returned to the Circuit Court in Springfield on August 7. It will likely be assigned to Judge Nardulli who issued the initial ruling. AFSCME attorneys anticipate that the judge will set a hearing date for later in August. At the time, our attorney will present a motion for “summary judgment” which would effectively ask the circuit court to accept the reasoning of the Supreme Court and declare SB 1313 (now Public Act 97-695) unconstitutional. The union will also request that the judge order that retiree health care premiums be restored to their previous rate and that all premium increases paid thus far (currently being held in escrow) be returned to retirees.
We do not know at this time what position Attorney General Lisa Madigan will take before the circuit court. She may argue against the summary judgment and press for a full hearing – which could take many more months, even years – in order to raise in this case the “police powers” argument on which the state is relying in its defense of pension-cutting SB 1 (see next item).
A hopeful sign on pensions – The Supreme Court ruling in the retiree health care case (Kanerva v. Weems) – and its validation of the Illinois constitution’s pension protection clause – is an encouraging sign as AFSCME and other unions seek to overturn the legislation that would cut pension benefits for state of Illinois and state university retirees (SB 1 – Public Act 98-599). The finding that retiree health care benefits are covered by the pension protection clause does not portend well for the Attorney General’s apparent position in the SB 1 case that annual annuity increases are not constitutionally protected.
From its response to the Kanerva decision, it appears that the AG intends to rely heavily on its second line of argument in seeking to defend SB 1 – the claim that the state’s “police powers” justify the impairment of pension benefits that SB1 imposes. The preamble to SB 1 lays out the State’s contention that pension underfunding represents such a dire fiscal emergency that the state must use its “police powers” to override the protections that the constitution affords pension benefits.
However, union attorneys point to the fact that in Kanerva the justices stated that the pension protection clause “was intended … to guarantee that retirement rights enjoyed by public employees would be afforded contractual status and insulated from diminishment or impairment by the General Assembly.”
The lawsuit that AFSCME and our union partners in the We Are One Illinois coalition have filed is now before Judge Belz in Sangamon County Circuit Court, where the coalition is represented by John Shapiro of the Freeborn and Peters law firm. Our coalition, along with several other plaintiff groups, had previously requested (prior to the ruling in Kanerva) that Judge Belz hear arguments only with regard to the coalition’s contention that the police power does not apply to the pension clause in an effort to move the central issue in the case swiftly to the Supreme Court. So far, the judge has indicated his intention to have the parties build a complete record on all issues and arguments in the case before it is sent to a higher court.
Earlier this week, in the wake of the retiree health care ruling, the plaintiff attorneys returned to court to once again attempt to expedite the case, asking the judge to reconsider his decision – and to restrict the matter before him at this time to the threshold questions of whether the constitution’s pension protection clause prohibits any reductions in pension benefits and whether the State legally may attempt to justify a pension benefit impairment based on the police power. The Attorney General is arguing for a full hearing on all elements of the case – which could take many months. The parties return to court on September 4.
Good news on back pay – Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka has notified AFSCME Council 31 that four state agencies – DOC, DJJ, DHS and DNR – have now submitted the vouchers needed to issue payment of back wages owed to their employees. Employees will receive partial payment of the money they are owed as a result of wage increases withheld by the Quinn administration in 2011. Comptroller Topinka has indicated that her office is working intensively to process all the vouchers and ensure that the funds are swiftly deposited in employees’ accounts, possibly as early as Monday. This payment will be issued as a separate “check,” distinct from employees’ regular paychecks. Each agency should have provided employees with information as to the amount they are owed – and with an FAQ fact sheet that answers many of the technical questions employees may have. DPH is still processing its vouchers and is expected to submit them shortly. All funds must be disbursed to employees by August 31.
The amount of the payments is determined by a supplemental appropriation enacted in the final days of the spring legislative session. AFSCME has conducted a vigorous grassroots lobbying effort for the past two years to push legislators to appropriate the funds needed to pay every employee the full amount owed. As part of the union contract settlement in 2013, Governor Quinn agreed to support full payment of the back wages – and the Quinn administration joined AFSCME in pressing legislators to pass a supplemental appropriation that provided the funding.
However, when the General Assembly failed to extend the tax rates currently in place – opening up a giant hole in the state budget – legislators balked at passage. It took at intensive lobbying effort at the Capitol every single day in the final weeks of the session by AFSCME’s Back Pay Brigades, made up of local union leaders from across the state, to compel the General Assembly to take another step toward ensuring wage justice – the enactment of a supplemental appropriation that provides for partial payment to every employee who is owed money.
Next week will bring some very welcome funds to those employees who have been anxiously awaiting this partial back pay check to help with car payments, kids’ school tuition, rent or utility bills. But the fight isn’t over yet. AFSCME will be back in the fall when the General Assembly reconvenes to continue the battle to ensure that every employee receives the full amount he or she is owed.
The real Bruce Rauner – At the Illinois AFSCME PEOPLE Conference last January, the more than 500 local union leaders in attendance voted overwhelmingly to make the defeat of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner our union’s top priority in this election year. The reason for their decision was simple – Rauner had repeatedly vowed to “take on” public employee unions and to drive down the wages and benefits of public employees.
In the primary election, AFSCME endorsed Kirk Dillard and helped to narrow Rauner’s margin of victory to a mere 3 percent after he had spent more than $6 million dollars and held a 20 percentage point lead just weeks before the election.
Rauner spent much of primary season vilifying public employees and their unions, claiming that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker – who eliminated collective bargaining rights for state employees – was his model and alleging that public employee unions are “corrupt” by their very nature.
Since the primary, he’s been trying to hide his real agenda: wrecking unions and driving down the standard of living of working families. Now he claims he doesn’t hate public employees, just the leaders of their unions. What kind of word games is the man playing?
If he hates our union leaders now, would he be happy with different leaders? No – Rauner thinks average people are stupid and will give him a pass if he aims his vitriol at “union bosses.” What he really means is what he originally said – he hates public employee unions and wants to take us down.
Of course, Rauner is out to get more than public employees and our unions. He wants to eliminate public education and privatize public services. He wants to bring in his corporate cronies to run state government and bring in charter schools across the state.
In the coming weeks, your AFSCME local union will be providing you with more information about the real Bruce Rauner. In the meantime, you can visit the Illinois Freedom website to get the latest info on the corporate scams he’s been running, his tax dodging and his billionaire lifestyle.
News via: AFSCME Council 31