In Illinois legislature, first veto fight may come over union prison nurses

ILLINOIS CAPITOL building in Springfield

Rauner wants to replace union jobs with out-of-state contractor’s low-paid, non-union workers

Illinois Correspondent

Springfield, IL – The Illinois Legislature has been passing a lot of good legislation this session, with more to come, but Democrats and their Labor supporters have a problem. They don’t have enough votes to override vetoes by Governor Bruce Rauner.

Rauner does not hesitate to use his veto power against Labor-backed legislation. Last year, Democrats had just enough votes in the House and sufficient votes in the Senate to override vetoes, but all too often they still could not do it because of absences and a couple of turncoats in the House.

This year, the turncoats are gone, but the Republican election win in November claimed enough House seats to leave even a united Democratic Party unable to override on its own.

Democrats now hold 67 seats, with a three-fifths majority – 71 – needed to override. Democrats have enough votes to override in the Senate, if they can maintain their discipline.

One of the first bills that may become a veto fight this year is one to stop Rauner’s blatant attempt to eliminate union jobs by firing 124 union nurses now working in Illinois prisons. He wants to replace them with an out-of-state contractor’s low-paid, non-union workers. Or else make the nurses become low-paid, non-union, non-pension workers themselves, if they apply to get their jobs back.


Senate Democrats led by Andy Manar of nearby Bunker Hill passed Senate Bill 19 to halt the firings and keep the nurses working, and it was passed in the House and sent on to Rauner.

Manar tried to make it bipartisan, but Republican support was scant. Senator Sam McCann, a Republican from nearby Carlinville, who is also a strong Labor backer, was a co-sponsor of the bill, but it drew only four Republican votes in the Senate. One of them was another southern Illinois senator, newly elected Paul Schimpf of Waterloo.

The overall vote was 40-15. Three Republicans did not vote – either because they were unavailable or unwilling to join in persecuting the nurses.

The House was similar, with a 66-42 vote for the bill, including only three Republicans supporting it. One of them was another area resident, C.D. Davidsmeyer of Jacksonville. Another six Republicans failed to vote, plus two Democrats.

So if Rauner vetoes the bill, sponsors will need all the votes that passed it in the House plus five more to overturn the veto.


Jay Hoffman, chairman of the House Labor and Commerce Committee and one of Labor’s strongest allies, is realistic about chances of over-riding vetoes this session.

“The only way I could guarantee these bills will pass is if we had a Democratic governor,” he said.

Instead, Democrats will either have to persuade Rauner to agree or persuade Republicans in the House to join them in overrides – especially Republicans who voted for the bills in the first place.

“I’m hopeful they’ll be supportive,” Hoffman said.

But last year, Republicans would sometimes reverse their support for Labor bills – such as a prevailing wage bill backed by Hoffman – in the override votes, under pressure from Rauner, who now controls the party with his money.

So Hoffman is hoping that some of the newly elected Republicans would be willing to stand up for workers.

“There are new members. Let’s see what their feeling is,” he said.

It’s still worth passing pro-worker legislation, Hoffman added.

“We need to move forward with the debate so he knows we’re not going to stand still,” he said.


Manar and McCann are urging that their bill to protect the nurses – and 198 other state health workers – become law on its merit.

“There is no evidence that outsourcing these jobs will save money,” Manar said. “You can’t just look at one side of the ledger and claim you’re driving a bargain for taxpayers. This is especially true when you look at the cost of mismanagement in the prisons, at the cost of unemployment that comes from outsourcing, and the local economic cost of people earning lower wages when Governor Rauner forces them to re-apply for their jobs with a private company, as he has proposed in the name of ‘savings.’ ”

The other employees to be protected include medical technicians and mental health professionals working for the Department of Corrections.

McCann is one Republican who is willing to stand up to Rauner on behalf of working people.

“These health care professionals work in a dangerous environment and deserve far better than being laid off and forced to compete for their old jobs at lower pay,” he said.

“Let’s respect our workers and treat them fairly. That’s what this legislation does, and that’s why it won bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate.

“There is no reason we should be sending taxpayer money out of state when we can put it in the pockets of hard-working Illinois residents who live, work and pay taxes in the Land of Lincoln.”

The company, Wexford, has a 10-year, $1.4 billion contract to provide medical services in Illinois prisons. So far, it has come under fire for providing both insufficient and improper care to the inmates.

Representative Dan Beiser (D-Alton) said the nurses deserve to be treated with a little respect.

“Nurses go through years of training and are committed to treating their patients,” he said. “These medical professionals should not be fired from their jobs just because there is a contract disagreement with the governor. The nurses who are employed by the state of Illinois, regardless of their union or their location, should be treated as the trained experts they are.”

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