Question the timing all you want, but last week’s legal filing by Attorney General Lisa Madigan to stop paying state-employee wages without an official appropriation is long overdue and is completely consistent with a 2016 Illinois Supreme Court ruling and with her (and the governor’s) opposition to a lawsuit brought by social-service providers.

Back in 2015, after the General Assembly and the governor couldn’t come to terms on a budget, AFSCME and other unions went to court and asked a judge to force the state to pay state workers even though there was no official appropriation for the salaries. The precedent from that case remains in place today, based on this passage in the Illinois Constitution: “The General Assembly by law shall make appropriations for all expenditures of public funds by the State.”

So the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in March of 2016 on a different case that the portion of AFSCME’s contract with the state requiring payment of back wages could not be honored without a proper legislative appropriation. In other words, no appropriation, no payment – even with a contract.

It was a completely reasonable decision. The governor shouldn’t be able to sign contracts and then force state payment without an actual appropriation. The potential for abuse is mind-blowing. Just imagine if Rod Blagojevich could’ve paid whomever he wanted, how much he wanted without any legislative permission.

Governor Bruce Rauner’s position against a lawsuit brought by human-service providers is also completely in-line with that 2016 Supreme Court decision. The service providers say their signed state contracts mean they should be paid in full even though the General Assembly hasn’t approved the appropriations to do so. Never once has Rauner said those providers ought to be paid without a formal budget in place.

But there he was last week saying that Madigan’s motion would “directly harm” state workers. He’s been fighting the state-employee unions since Day One yet he wants state workers paid without an appropriation? And he says he wants to help social-service groups, but he doesn’t want social-service providers paid the same way?

So what’s Rauner up to?

There will naturally be widespread suspicions that Madigan acted on behalf of her father, House Speaker Michael Madigan. The Illinois Republican Party explicitly made that very point when it claimed the attorney general “decided to put Speaker Madigan’s power politics ahead of hard-working families in an effort to shut down state government.”

That last sentence is the key here. The governor has done all he could to avoid a shutdown because a shutdown means all the emphasis would then be on quickly passing a real budget and the tax hikes that go along with it to reopen the government’s shuttered doors.

And that means the governor will lose much (or most, or possibly even all) of his beloved “leverage” to force through his various anti-union/pro-business economic reforms. And that leverage, whether he admits it or not, is the extreme pressure that’s been put on social-service providers and the people they serve since this impasse began 18 months ago.

But why didn’t Madigan file her action last year after the Supreme Court ruling? I’m told she wanted to give the General Assembly and the governor some time to work things out. They eventually agreed to a stopgap budget, so she laid low. But that stopgap budget expired at the end of December, and the General Assembly left town last week without making significant progress.

The attorney general has asked the judge to delay any order until February 28 to give the governor and legislature time to work out a deal.

Get on it, folks.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and CapitolFax.com.

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