Illinois Governor Dodges Suit Over Repeated Budget Vetoes

CHICAGO (CN) – Social service organizations that haven’t been paid in over a year due to the Illinois budget crisis cannot sue Gov. Bruce Rauner for repeatedly vetoing budget legislation, a state appeals court ruled.

Illinois state legislators left Springfield at the end of May without passing an appropriations bill, a normally routine task that has been crippled by the difference in priorities – and enmity – between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrat-controlled Legislature, led by House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Madigan blamed Rauner for “holding the budget hostage,” while Rauner criticized Madigan for a “complete dereliction of duty by the majority in the General Assembly.”

On July 1, Illinois will enter its third year without a budget, a crisis that has left the state with $14.5 billion in unpaid bills, ravaged its education and social service programs, and put the state on the brink of getting its bonds downgraded to junk status.

Rauner, elected in 2015, is the first Republican governor to lead Illinois since 2003, and he refuses to agree to any spending plan that does not include a property-tax freeze.

A group of 98 social service organization – including the Illinois Collaboration on Youth, AIDS Foundation of Chicago, Caritas Family Solutions and many others – sued Rauner and other state agency heads in state court, demanding payment for the services they rendered under 2016 contracts.

The state never terminated its contracts with these organizations, but cannot pay them for their services without an appropriations bill. The organizations say it is not feasible for them to withdraw from the contracts because they would risk never receiving any payment, and withdrawal would cause harm to the populations they serve.

But a state judge ruled the governor is entitled to immunity for his veto of various budgets passed by the Legislature, and an Illinois appeals court affirmed Thursday.

“The Governor was not obligated to approve any or all portions of appropriations bills by the General Assembly,” Judge Eileen O’Neill Burke said, writing for a three-judge panel of the Illinois Appellate Court’s First District.

State agency heads also cannot be held liable for entering into the contracts, even if they knew there was no money appropriated to pay the bills, because the contracts themselves are expressly contingent on the availability of funds, the court ruled.

“Plaintiffs here cannot point to a specific constitutional or statutory provision that either specifically prohibits defendants’ actions or that specifically requires an appropriation for plaintiffs’ benefit and would compel payment despite the governor’s veto. There is no statutory mandate,” Burke wrote.

The Illinois comptroller has estimated that the state will owe more than $800 million in interest and fees on overdue bills by the end of June, but there is no sign Rauner and Madigan will come to a compromise anytime soon.

The budget crisis is likely to be a major issue in the state’s 2018 gubernatorial election in which Rauner will seek re-election.

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