Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Legislative panel isn't on board with facility closures

By Jamey Dunn 

A panel of lawmakers voted today to reject Gov. Pat Quinn’s plans to close several state facilities.

The Commission On Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) shot down Quinn’s proposals to close two prisons — a “super-max” security facility in Tamms and a women’s prison in Dwight —  along with Murray Developmental Center in Centralia, a juvenile detention center in Joliet and two Department of Corrections facilities — one in Chicago and one in Peoria — meant to help inmates transition back into society. Quinn’s budget proposal had called for the closure of a total of 14 state institutions.

Many who opposed the closures said that they did not think Quinn’s plans for closing facilities were detailed enough. Rep. Patricia Bellock, a co-chair of the committee, said that she supported closing developmental centers, but she wanted more reassurance that there would be enough community based programs and services to care for those currently in the residential developmental centers. “The comprehensive plan needs to be in place. …When we make a change like this, a huge change that impacts the people’s lives, it has to be done in a correct way,” said Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican. Lawmakers gave the same reason for opposing proposed facility closures from Quinn last year.

Rep. Raymond Poe, a Springfield Republican, said that he thinks that alternatives to Quinn’s proposed closures, which the governor's office says would lead to a total of more than 2,300 layoffs, should be explored. Poe said that funding for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity could be used to stave off the closures and preserve jobs, or Quinn could sign a gaming bill passed last year and bring in more revenue. “We ought to be looking at solutions of how we keep these open. We ought to be looking at solutions of [how] we’re going to pay for it. I think as the legislature, we have thrown out a couple of ideas here, and I’m sure there’s more,” Poe said during today’s hearing.

Sen. Donne Trotter, a budget point man for Senate Democrats, said that lawmakers must face the reality of the state’s budget problems and make unpopular decisions, such as voting to close facilities. “Looking at the $8 billion of debt that we’re in, looking at our pension liability and looking at the things that we must do to get us whole again in this state, this is just a right way of doing that,” Trotter, a Democrat from Chicago, said before voting to close Dwight Correctional Center. Trotter voted against the closure of IDOC adult transition centers.

The group did approve the closure of a Department of Children and Family Services office in Skokie. However, employees from that office would be moved to other nearby DCFS offices. No members of the panel present today voiced opposition to the consolidation.

 The commission’s recommendations are advisory, so Quinn can move forward without the groups’ approval. However, Evanston Democratic Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, a co-chair of the committee, said that no governor has closed a facility against COGFA’s recommendations. Quinn did not give a clear indication of his next step. “We respect the role of COGFA in the facility closure process, as well as their engaged questioning throughout. We have incorporated a great deal of their input into our facility closure plans. However, we must continue to deal with our budget challenges and make the difficult decisions necessary to restore fiscal stability to Illinois,” said a written statement issued by the governor’s office.

Union officials who represent workers at the institutions and family members of residents at the state’s developmental centers celebrated today’s vote. “We applaud the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability for rejecting Governor Quinn’s wrongful and damaging closure threats,” Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31, said in a written statement. “The governor’s push to force individuals with disabilities out of their homes, reduce mental health treatment, jeopardize prison safety, end reentry programs and put thousands of public servants out of work are the wrong priorities for Illinois.”

Moving ahead, the battle over closures will focus on the budgeting process. Will lawmakers include funding for the facilities in the budget they are scheduled to produce later this month? If they do, it would likely mean cuts elsewhere. Quinn could also opt to use his veto pen to cut out any funding for institutions he wants to close. “We call on Gov. Quinn to listen to the commission and withdraw his ill-considered closure plans, and we urge the legislature to make sure all state facilities are fully funded in the [Fiscal Year] 2013 budget,” Lindall said.

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