By Pat Hughes
When government officials sit down to negotiate contracts with the leaders of Illinois public sector unions, a critical third party in these discussions is intentionally omitted — Illinois taxpayers. In fact, taxpayers aren’t even allowed to learn any details of the contracts until long after the contracts have become binding. And once that happens, the taxpayers are essentially stuck with the deals struck in one of Springfield’s countless backrooms.
This spring, legislation was introduced that offered a simple and effective way to bring transparency to state government by addressing the manner in which public sector union contracts were negotiated and ratified. HB 2689 requires that the contracts negotiated between government officials and public sector unions would have to be posted online for public review for 14 days, followed by a public hearing prior to a contract’s ratification. Currently, these contracts are subject to taxpayer scrutiny only through Freedom of Information Act requests after they have been ratified. By then the die is cast.
This bill is a common-sense approach to let the public have some say before ratification so that the contracts could be altered to reflect public sentiment. Why not let the public have input on these contracts when their feedback — positive or negative — actually matters?
Obviously, deals that our elected officials cut with public sector unions have a tremendous impact on both individual taxpayers and the economy as a whole. These deals cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year, which is a sizable portion of the state’s budget. They also directly contribute to the biggest fiscal issue in Illinois today, the pension crisis, because the compensation agreed to in these contracts is the basis for an employee’s pension calculation.
We know too well in Illinois what it is like to have unaffordable pension obligations. Since the largest income tax hike in state history in 2011, families in Illinois are paying an extra $1,500 in higher taxes. In 2012, 80 percent of that money went to pay for public sector employee pensions.
Although HB 2689 would allow for more public scrutiny of these contracts, it does not appear likely that it will even make it to a floor vote. The bill was blocked by a group of 18 lawmakers from both parties representing constituencies from across the state, including several in the suburbs: Reps. Fred Crespo (D-Streamwood), Keith Farnham (D-Elgin), Laura Fine (D-Glenview), Michelle Mussman (D-Schaumburg), Robert Pritchard (R-Sycamore), Carol Sente (D-Lincolnshire), Kathleen Willis (D-Northlake) and Sam Yingling (D-Hainesville).
Not surprisingly, each of the 18 lawmakers who opposed this bill, including those listed above, has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from organized labor in the last two years, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. By contrast, of the five lawmakers who consistently supported this bill, four of them have not accepted any contributions from organized labor in the past two years. Thus, the question must be raised: Are these legislators acting in the best interest of taxpayers, or are they acting in the interest of the labor unions that help fund their campaigns?
Some argue that HB 2689 is an attack on labor unions. It is not. Any fair labor contract will withstand the scrutiny for which the bill allows. Instead, it is a mechanism for additional public participation in matters directly and disproportionately related to the economic health of our state. Decisions of this magnitude, especially given the financial incentive to lawmakers outlined above, ought not happen entirely behind closed doors. Transparency of this kind has been part of the economic resurgence of our neighboring states like Wisconsin and Indiana in recent years. Why not here?
Pat Hughes is a spokesman for the Illinois Opportunity Project and former U.S. Senate candidate.