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Quinn wants attorney general to drop back-pay suit

SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Pat Quinn wants Attorney General Lisa Madigan to drop a lawsuit over back pay for unionized state workers so he can implement a new state contract he says will save hundreds of millions of dollars.

But Madigan’s office said Thursday the attorney general won’t dissolve the legal action until her lawyers know whether lawmakers will agree to find $140 million to pay the back wages that are at the center of the wrangling.

Quinn and the employees’ union settled the dispute at the bargaining table, and the Democratic governor says prolonging the lawsuit holds up $900 million in health care savings.

Madigan, a Chicago Democrat like Quinn, is considering opposing him in the gubernatorial primary next spring, but officials were careful Thursday to stress the lawsuit is not a question of political ill will.

Quinn and 35,000 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees agreed to a three-year contract in March after lengthy talks that stretched well past the June 2012 expiration of the prior contract. The deal thawed frosty relations between the two sides that were chilled by Quinn’s refusal in 2011 and early 2012 to pay 5.25 percent in raises promised to the union.

AFSCME sued and Quinn appealed in January a Cook County Circuit Court ruling that he owed the raises. Now, the union and the governor want the lawsuit withdrawn, but Madigan is waiting.

Quinn and AFSCME are working on legislation to get approval – a supplemental appropriation – from the General Assembly to pay $140 million in wages owed for the past two years. Madigan’s office says the lawsuit is “on hold” while they pursue that deal, but it’s premature to leave the courtroom.

“If the supplemental appropriation passes, the appeals in the lawsuit would be moot. But if a supplemental does not pass, then, unfortunately, the lawsuit will need to continue,” Madigan spokeswoman Natalie Bauer said.

Quinn angered his labor support in July 2011 when he announced he would not honor $75 million in wage increases due AFSCME members because the Legislature hadn’t provided money to pay them. The move tasted especially sour to AFSCME because it had agreed to delay half of the raise due that month to save the state money in a budget crisis.

Although the Quinn administration paid raises to employees in some agencies as money came available, the AFSCME lawsuit involves $64 million that was never paid.

Quinn wants to put the rancor behind him now, particularly with election season approaching, but also because there are savings to be had. AFSCME won’t sign the tentative contract agreement until the lawsuit is history, and Quinn is eager to implement it. While he gave up the fight over the raises, health care savings from current and retired state workers in the newly ratified pact could save $900 million, budget spokesman Abdon Pallasch said.

“Failing resolve the $64 million lawsuit now risks the $900 million in health care savings for taxpayers under the contract,” Pallasch said.

The $140 million appropriation that Quinn staffers are drafting covers what remains unpaid from the fiscal year that ended last June 30 and what’s not been paid this fiscal year for AFSCME and other employees represented by different unions, Pallasch said. The administration set aside about $39 million last fall, following a judge’s order, to be used for the back-pay bill from fiscal 2012.

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