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Supreme Court's Ruling On Wages Could "Impair The State's Ability To Function"

the Illinois Supreme Court bench in the court's main building in Springfield
Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois

The Illinois Supreme Court Thursday said the state does not have to pay unionized employees what it says in their contracts, unless legislators specifically appropriate the money.

The ruling immediately affects some 24,000 state workers waiting on an average of $2,500 each -- raises they were supposed to have received in 2011, but are still waiting for.

But it could have a broader implications, too.

First, the workers. They're members of AFSCME, and under a contract with the state were guaranteed raises. But even as lawmakers approved funding base salaries, they never included money for the raises. Lower courts said the state's obligated. But the Supreme Court opinion reverses that.

The justices say the constitution makes clear that the power to approve spending is vested exclusively in the General Assembly, and public funds can't be spent absent legislators' authorization.

Union spokesman Anders Lindall says the ruling raises questions about whether Illinois will make good on its contracts -- with state employees and otherwise.

"This decision opens the door to state government to take all of those services and then say 'we're simply not going to pay for it," he said.

In that, AFSCME has the agreement of one dissenting justice, Thomas Kilbride, who wrote that it's especially true given Illinois' current budget crisis. He say the court decision "may, in fact, further impair the State's ability to function."

State workers are currently getting paid absent an appropriation, given that Illinois is nine months into the fiscal year without a budget. Lower court rulings have allowed the comptroller to keep writing their paychecks.

(Comptroller Leslie Munger says federal law basically requires that some employees at least get a minimum wage, but that her office's computer programs and technology are so outdated it's impossible for her to separate that out).

It's possible the decision of the state's high court could put the status quo in jeopardy.

Gov. Bruce Rauner's office says it's reviewing the opinion, and offered no other immediate comment.

Amanda Vinicky moved to Chicago Tonight on WTTW-TV PBS in 2017.
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