Tempers flare when there is not enough money to go around.
Leaders of organized labor held a political summit on the state's public pension problems Monday in Burr Ridge, and the attendance — or lack thereof — spoke volumes about just how tough a political issue this issue has become.
No one disputes the horrific financial implications surrounding the $95 billion-plus in underfunding that plagues the state's five public pension plans. But the political implications surrounding proposed solutions have become so toxic that the status quo is, for now at least, frozen into place — the result being that the pension woes, as bad as they are, continue to get worse.
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, as he indicated a couple of weeks ago in a nasty letter to labor leaders, did not send a representative to the summit. He has publicly characterized the state's public employee unions as distinctly unhelpful on the issue.
Gov. Pat Quinn and Senate President John Cullerton had representatives present. House Republican Leader Tom Cross attended the gathering. This spotty attendance represents a significant split between Democratic elected officials and the public employee unions that traditionally fund the campaigns of Democratic candidates, and relations stand to become further strained between these traditional allies.
Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, singled Quinn out for condemnation in a speech he delivered Monday in Washington, D.C.
"Look at Gov. Quinn. He has waged a relentless war on state employees — slashing pensions, driving down incomes and wiping out jobs. Last year he took the unprecedented step of terminating our contract," Saunders said.
In condemning Quinn, Saunders warned other public officials who might follow Quinn's lead to think twice about it.
"I've had enough of these turncoats, and it's time to make them pay," he said.
Quinn may have to pay politically because he has no money to buy off his opposition. Illinois is broke, and that reality has distorted the often cozy relationship between public union leaders who negotiate employee contracts with public officials they helped elect to office.
As anyone who's been paying attention realizes, if Illinois was a private entity, it would have filed bankruptcy a long time ago. Since states are barred from filing bankruptcy, it staggers along.
There's not enough money to pay its debts, fully fund its core budget responsibilities and meet its pension payment obligations.
Quinn has urged legislative action on pensions, tried to explain to union negotiators that he has nothing to give and been unsuccessful on both counts.
AFSCME's response after months of fruitless negotiations on a new contract has been to urge its members to prepare for a strike.
"The most important thing you can do ... is to begin to put some money aside now out of each paycheck. Do not make any major purchases until the possibility of a strike has passed," AFSCME said in a letter distributed last week to its members. AFSCME currently is representing 30,000 state employees in stalemated contract talks, and it could cause chaos in state government if its employees walked out.
But is a strike really a viable strategy when Illinois has no money to buy labor peace? Will defeating Quinn for re-election, as AFSCME indicates it will try to do, mean his replacement will provide what Quinn cannot?
The inevitable is happening. Decades of financial mismanagement are paralyzing state government, turning allies into opponents and denying everyday citizens the government services they thought they paid for.
What's even worse to contemplate is that Illinois has yet to slow its relentless race to the financial bottom.