Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Unions and lawmakers push back on facility closures

By Jamey Dunn

State employee unions and some lawmakers are voicing their disappointment as Gov. Pat Quinn moves forward with the closure several state facilities.

 Quinn’s administration confirmed that plans to close a super-maximum-security prison near Tamms, a women’s prison in Dwight, a juvenile justice center in Murphysboro and a juvenile justice center in Joliet are moving forward. Three centers used to transition inmates back into society would also be closed. The facilities are scheduled to close by August 31, except the juvenile justice center in Joliet, which is scheduled for closure on October 31. (For a comprehensive look at the debate over closing Tamms, see Illinois Issues, June 2102.)

Lawmakers included money in the budget to fund all state facilities through the next fiscal year, and the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, a legislative panel, refused to sign off on the closures when members voted during the regular session. However, the ultimate decision belongs to Quinn.

Legislators from southern Illinois, who pushed for putting funds in the budget to keep state institutions open, struck back at Quinn. “We all know that Illinois is facing a huge financial crisis that will require government to cut back and reduce spending. But if the governor wants to show he is serious about getting the state to live within its means, he should focus on all of the waste and mismanagement that occurs in Springfield and Chicago on a daily basis before handing out pink slips to all the employees at Tamms,” Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Democrat from Harrisburg, said in a written statement.

Union officials are also trying to push Quinn to change his mind. “The decision to close state facilities should not be based on political expediency. The budget sent to you by the General Assembly represents a positive intersection of fiscal and ethical issues: All of the proposed closures have dire consequences for the safety and well-being of real human beings — and all of them can be prevented. We urge you to take immediate action to stop the closures by publicly stating your intention to keep facilities open and maintain the funding levels designated by the General Assembly,” Henry Bayer, executive director of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31, wrote in a letter recently sent to Quinn. Lawmakers opposed to the closures and corrections workers also held a news conference outside of Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon’s Carbondale office today.

But Quinn’s administration says it has already participated in the listening portion of the process. “The governor’s decision to close several facilities was made after careful consideration and extensive deliberation with the Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice. While we have heard many voices and participated fully in the COGFA process, the fact remains that the state can no longer afford these facilities if we truly want to address the state's budget challenges that have been created over decades of fiscal mismanagement,” Kelly Kraft, a spokeswoman for Quinn’s budget office, said in a prepared statement. Kraft said increased Medicaid and pension costs have squeezed out other spending and made the closures a budgeting necessity.

According to Quinn’s office, the closure will affect about 720 employees, but some of those workers will have a chance to move to positions at other state institutions. "We have also directed our two jobs agencies  —  the Departments of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and Employment Security  — to be on the ground in the affected communities to guide these employees through their transitions. They have a comprehensive and coordinated set of resources to provide direct, customized assistance to those facing unemployment to ensure they are matched with available job opportunities in the region or the training needed to secure a job,” said a written statement from Quinn’s office. “Both agencies will work with all employees by conducting workshops that will guide them through the unemployment application process, as well as assist with job search. DCEO and IDES websites will continually be updated with upcoming job fair information, available workshops and other changes that may impact employees.”


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