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Column

Reeder: Political sweetheart deals are questionable

Scott Reeder’s column below concerning a labor contract between the Service Employees International Union and the state of Illinois contains an error. The column left the impression that the state is overpaying for health insurance for homecare workers by 80 percent. That is not the case. Illinois News Network regrets the error.

SPRINGFIELD – Government contracts given to  organizations that give campaign contributions to the politicians – who write the agreements – can produce some pretty bizarre documents.

I remember back when Rod Blagojevich was governor, PWS Environmental, a Cicero firm that had given big bucks to Democratic candidates, suddenly had a contract to clean road salt storage domes.

Only problem was, some engineers said it was unnecessary work.

So taxpayers may have received no discernible benefit from the work done. 

It smacked of a sweetheart deal. 

Illinois now bars giving major state contracts to firms that have contributed to the campaigns of the politicians making those decisions. 

It was a good move to eliminate this “pay-to-play” practice.

But what about labor unions?

They give also lavishly to politicians, and they sign enormous contracts with state government – sometimes worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

How is that not a conflict? After all, if it is for business, it ought to be a conflict for Big Labor. 

Gov. Bruce Rauner has called for banning such contributions for government worker unions. 

A recent lawsuit brought to light an old labor contract that raised my eyebrows. 

The perplexing contract is between the state of Illinois and the Service Employees International labor union.  

SEIU is a big-bucks political player that funneled $6.74 million into Gov. Pat Quinn’s campaign coffers since 2010. 

Politicians will do back flips for that kind of dough. 

And while Quinn was governor, the state entered into a contract with SEIU to contribute money for each hour worked by home care workers represented by the union toward health insurance.

The state is paying $1.11 an hour.

But here is the rub: Fewer than one-fifth of the home care workers actually accepted the insurance offered by the health care fund administered by SEIU.

So instead of the state just contributing toward the 5,000 employees accepting the insurance, taxpayers are paying for those employees and an extra 20,000 workers who said they didn’t want it.

Wouldn’t it be better if workers declining the insurance got a pay raise instead? 

Why would Quinn negotiate a contract like that? 

At least on the surface, it would appear the contract has the state paying 80 percent more than it should.

Messages were left with SEIU and Quinn, but neither responded.

These contributions are costing taxpayers $2.96 million a month – or about $35 million a year. 

Recently, the SEIU got a court order compelling the state pay $13 million in payments to the health plan it had fallen behind on. That’s hardly surprising – the state’s fallen behind on paying just about everybody it owes money. 

But the court order leapfrogs SEIU ahead of needy families, nonprofits and others also waiting for their payments. Some might call that unfair. 

So how well does SEIU run the health plan?

It’s hard to say, but according to tax documents, the employee overseeing the fund makes $146,000 a year and works 20 hours a week. 

Not a bad part-time gig – if you can get it. 

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and a journalist with Illinois News Network, a project of the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at sreeder@ilnews.org.

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