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posted: 11/20/2014 5:43 PM

Editorial: Sinister signals: Lawmakers show their loyalties with vote on union staffing bill

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

With their votes on union-sponsored legislation involving firefighter contracts, lawmakers in the Illinois House and Senate have given some clear and none-too-pleasant signals of what they think about municipal leaders, local property taxpayers and a legislator's loyalties.

The Senate's action on Thursday now leaves it to outgoing Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn to demonstrate where his sympathies lie, whether with the strong firefighters union lobby or with the municipalities and taxpayers that would have to manage a process that substantially diminishes local control over matters of safety and budgeting.

The House passed HB 5485 in April, moving to the Senate a bill that requires municipalities to negotiate staffing levels as a matter of collective bargaining with local firefighters. In cases of impasse, an arbitrator is left to determine the outcome. With the election behind them, senators approved the legislation on Thursday.

Inherent in the premise of the law is the notion that local mayors and village boards -- not to mention fire department administrators themselves, who also oppose this bill -- cannot be trusted with the safety of local firefighters or, further, the very citizens they serve. But a disinterested and isolated arbitrator can.

Based on that sinister and cynical assessment of locally elected leaders, state lawmakers have endorsed a process designed by the powerful state firefighters union that puts in the hands of an arbitrator decisions that can mean millions of dollars to a local community.

Where will cash-strapped communities get the money?

Local taxpayers, of course. And, if not them, from other public works, police or local services. The legislation essentially puts firefighter staffing at the front of the line in the management of local spending. Worse, it affects the ability of local municipalities to negotiate firefighter staffing in the context of other needs and diminishes their ability to design inter-community agreements that can more efficiently provide safety services, adapted to the specific needs and dynamics of the towns involved.

Approval of this legislation sets a precedent for state government overreach of distressing proportions. If firefighter safety cannot be entrusted to local officials, why then should police officer safety? Why the safety of municipal electricity workers or other public service personnel?

Yet another cynical assumption of the legislation is that municipalities and firefighters unions don't currently talk about or negotiate safe staffing levels. In fact, almost all already do, and they're frequently able to work together to identify solutions that meet everyone's needs.

None of that resonated with lawmakers in the House or Senate, however. When it came time to vote on this bill, they didn't listen to the community leaders they represent. They didn't listen to the interests of the local property taxpayers in their districts. They listened to leaders of the firefighters unions who originated and pushed the bill.

And the senators did it in a lame-duck session, just in time to hand the law to a lame-duck governor for his signature. Therein lies one final message on the job ahead for Gov.-Elect Bruce Rauner and anyone interested in understanding what those who would change the legislative dynamics of Springfield are up against.

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