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In Illinois, governor's wife's group sues governor

A nonprofit social services group headed by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s wife has joined with other human service agencies that are suing the governor, comptroller and seven heads of state agencies for breach of contract stemming from the nearly year-long budget impasse.

On Wednesday, the coalition of agencies and nonprofits called Pay Now Illinois added 18 social services agencies as plaintiffs to its lawsuit, including the Ounce of Prevention Fund, whose president since January 2011 has been Diana Rauner. The organization focuses on providing early childhood services to those born in poverty.

According to Pay New Illinois, the plaintiffs are owed more than $130 million for about 11 months of unpaid work during the state’s budget crisis. The lawsuit seeks a preliminary injunction for emergency relief for the agencies and nonprofits, which have been laying off staff members, cutting back on key programs or simply closing down altogether.

Asked about the responses she has received about the lawsuit, Pay Now Illinois Coalition chairwoman Andrea Durbin told AMI Newswire: “The reaction has been ‘What took you so long?’ ”

She added: “We got encouragement from both sides of the aisle. I think it was recognition that we can’t rely on the political process completely.”

Gov. Rauner, a Republican, and the Democratic-controlled Illinois legislature have been unable to forge a budget agreement since last summer.

The governor himself responded to the lawsuit earlier  in May by telling the Chicago Tribune: “I share their frustration. Frankly, in some ways, I’m cheering for them. I mean, it’s ridiculous. What state in America just doesn’t pay its bills? We’re the only state.”

Even so, the lawsuit itself is critical of Rauner’s past vetoes of budget legislation.

“The governor’s veto of the appropriations for the very contracts that he and other defendants then entered with plaintiffs impairs the obligation of contracts, in violation of Article I, section 16, of the Illinois Constitution,” states the lawsuit, which was filed in Cook County Circuit Court.

The chief operating officer for the Ounce of Prevention Fund, Sarah Bradley, told NPR Illinois that the Illinois first lady’s involvement was not really relevant.  “This was a business decision that we made with the support and leadership of Diana and the support of the board. And this is, for us, about fairness and our contracting with the state.”

The suit contends that it was not constitutional for Rauner to veto appropriations for services while still enforcing contracts with the human service agencies.

Durbin said the lawsuit was filed as an emergency request and that she expects the court to provide a timely response, although no hearing has been scheduled as of yet.

Asked about the impact of having Diana Rauner’s name associated with the plaintiffs, Durbin said: “I think we were taken seriously before the Ounce joined us, and we continue to be taken seriously.”

She stressed that the lawsuit was all about business rather personalities. The Ounce joined because the organization was owed significant money from the state, and the Illinois budget situation has wrecked its ability to deliver services, Durbin said.

According to the lawsuit, “the plaintiffs are alleging more than irreparable injury to themselves; rather, they are complaining of a public emergency across the state.”

Durbin said all the plaintiffs have upheld their end of the bargain by providing the public services they promised to deliver in their contracts. “The state must uphold its end and pay our bills,” she said.