Illinois owes too many too much to be able to pay everyone with a valid claim.
Last year, Gov. Pat Quinn summarily canceled negotiated pay raises for 30,000 unionized state employees because he said the General Assembly had not appropriated enough money to pay them.
Since then, Quinn and members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have been engaged in an increasingly bitter fight over the money and the politics of Quinn's decision.
Last week, AFSCME won a victory of sorts when Cook County Judge Richard Billik issued an odd ruling requiring the state to set aside the money so it's available if he decides the state must pay.
Here's the question Judge Billik's order raises — in a state so deeply in debt that it is effectively bankrupt, in a state that does not pay its bills, in a state where the Legislature appropriates imaginary funds to state-supported institutions, to what money does the judge refer?
Sure, there's money in state coffers, but not enough to go around. The money the judge might order be paid to state employees is money that would have gone to some other entity. Billik essentially ordered the robbing of Peter to pay Paul.
It's not that AFSCME does not have a sound legal claim — the union negotiated a contract with Quinn in good faith. It calls for a 2 percent raise on July 1, 2011, 1.25 percent increase on Jan. 1, 2012, and another 2 percent on Feb. 1.
Quinn essentially agreed to spend money he knew the state didn't have, and AFSCME, grateful for his generosity, promptly endorsed his election in November 2010, lavished big donations on Quinn's campaign and provided foot soldiers to get Quinn voters to the polls.
Having been so generous to Quinn, AFSCME members are miffed over what they justifiably perceive as a double-cross, and they're not making a secret about their anger.
AFSCME members showed up at the state fair a couple weeks ago to boo Quinn off the stage. This week AFSCME executive director Henry Bayer chastised "the Quinn administration for doing everything it can to avoid honoring its contract" with AFSCME members.
The legal process, of course, will grind on, and eventually the Judge Billik will issue a final order. But whatever he decides, Judge Billik can't wave a magic wand and create enough money to go around for everyone with a valid claim.