(Originally published as a column by Greg Hinz in Crain's Chicago Business.)
At a time when pay raises are a distant memory and unpaid leave a reality for many area government workers, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has handed out pay hikes exceeding 6% to his entire executive staff.
According to payroll data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Better Government Assn., Mr. White in the 12-month period ended May 31 gave 4% and then 2% raises to roughly 250 non-union administrative personnel, almost all of them policymakers, supervisors or their clerical assistants.
The hikes collectively are costing taxpayers an extra $78,000 a month.
Mr. White declines to comment, but his spokesman says the raises were needed to keep executive salaries even with the wages of unionized workers after two years of pay freezes. The spokesman says Mr. White funded the raises by cutting other expenses, including out-of-town travel and BlackBerry cellphones.
The secretary himself is taking one day of unpaid leave a month voluntarily, the spokesman says.
But since the raises were given to even the highest-paid staffers, at least 40 department employees now are making at least $500 a month more than they were a year ago. The raises come as the state of Illinois has jacked up the individual income-tax rate by two-thirds, fallen months behind in paying even routine bills, and amassed tens of billions of dollars in unfunded pension liabilities.
One key lawmaker was "very surprised" to learn of the raises, calling them "inappropriate."
"In normal times, it would make sense," says State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock, who heads the House Committee on State Government Administration. But economic conditions today "are not normal," he adds. "There has to be shared sacrifice."
Many of those who received the raises have contributed to Mr. White's political campaign fund or to the 27th Ward Regular Democratic Organization he heads, though his spokesman says office staffers have not been allowed to give to the former since 2006. Those gifts have totaled just under $110,000 since 1997, with 25 of the 32 department officials who make more than $100,000 a year among the donors.
Photo courtesy juggernautco/Flickr
Others have substantial political or other connections to Mr. White or his political allies. Included: Jeannine Stroger, the wife of former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger; Glenna White-Jones, Mr. White's daughter; former Alderman Michael Wojcik (30th); Darneice Burnett, sister of Alderman Walter Burnett (27th); and Water Reclamation District Commissioner Cynthia Santos, who works part-time for Mr. White.
According to the office spokesman, money for the raises was available under the $396-million appropriation the office receives from the Legislature to issue driver's and vehicle licenses, register businesses and perform other services.
"These people work in programs where there have been great savings," the spokesman says. "The feeling here is that this was something that was deserved."
But BGA President Andy Shaw notes that state employee unions and Gov. Pat Quinn now are battling in court over the governor's move to block scheduled 4% raises for more than 30,000 workers. "Taxpayers have to ask how Secretary of State White can justify (that)," he says.
In comparison, 453 non-union staffers for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan have not received a raise since 2006, except for those who have been promoted.
Non-union workers in agencies that report directly to Mr. Quinn have taken as many as 24 unpaid furlough days in recent years and have received no raises since Mr. Quinn succeeded Rod Blagojevich in early 2009, excepting promotions, according to his office.
The story is similar at City Hall: no raises since 2008 for non-union supervisors and up to 24 unpaid furlough days a year.
Mr. White's executive staff has taken no furlough days since taking three at the end of 2008.
Mr. White, a Democrat, was first elected secretary of state in 1998 after several terms in the Illinois House. He generally is credited with some reforms at the Secretary of State's Office after the tenure of George Ryan, who is in prison after being convicted of federal corruption charges.
But Mr. White also caught some flak for promoting his daughter and putting his biographer on the state payroll. Those issues surfaced in the 2006 campaign, when Mr. White defeated Republican Dan Rutherford, who now is the state treasurer.
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