Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Quinn's budget cuts stand

By Jamey Dunn

During the Illinois General Assembly's fall session, the House did not take up Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget vetoes, which eliminated funding for several state facilities he plans to close.

Quinn cut a total of $57 million from the budget that lawmakers sent to him, and most of the money was funding for prisons and other Illinois Department of Corrections facilities that the governor says he intends to shutter as part of a cost-savings plan.

He vetoed $19.4 million for the super-maximum security prison near Tamms and $21.2 million for the women’s prison in Dwight. In addition to the prisons, he plans to close three transition centers meant to help inmates reenter society. He also cut $8.9 million for a youth prison in Joliet and $6.6 million for a youth prison in Murphysboro. The Senate voted to override the vetoes last week, but the House did not take a vote on the issue, which all involved said was largely symbolic. Even if the House had voted to reject Quinn’s changes, he would not have been bound to spend the money to keep the facilities open.

Still, downstate legislators in support of keeping the prisons open wanted a chance to argue their case on the House floor before the House ended its veto session today. “I had the best speech ever,” said Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat. He said the closures would hurt areas of Illinois that are already economically depressed. “Tamms is a huge economic engine for that little area down there. It’s just going to be devastating for that area and for my district. The governor always says he is the jobs governor, but he is not proving it right now.” Phelps said that today was the last day to vote on the vetoes.

Quinn had been lobbying hard against an override in both chambers. “Today is a victory for the taxpayers of Illinois. The Illinois House of Representatives sent a strong message about their serious commitment to reducing spending the state cannot afford,” a written statement from Quinn’s office said.

Critics of Tamms say that the prison's high staffing numbers and low number of inmates wastes money. They claim that its policy of extreme isolation for prisoners, who often spend only an hour outside of their cells each day, equates to torture. The treatment of inmates at the prison has been condemned by a number of international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International. Those in favor of closing Tamms argue that it would help other woefully understaffed prisons reach required staffing levels because staff from the closed prisons would be transferred.

But those opposed say the closures will make the state’s already overcrowded prison system even more dangerous. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees sued to keep the prisons open on the basis that the closures would put their employees in danger. So far, one arbitrator has sided with the union, saying the closure violates its contract, and one sided with Quinn, saying that the prisons could be closed safely. It is likely that a court will make the final call.

A spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, Steve Brown, said Madigan did not call the bill because it would have been “at best, a symbolic kind of vote” and that the House was unlikely to reject the cuts because Republicans were not on board. House Minority Leader Tom Cross said yesterday that he would not support an override vote because he believes Quinn plans to shut down the institutions no matter what. “We have a fiscal problem in this state, and we have to recognize that someday, that we don’t have a lot of extra money.”

Quinn is pushing lawmakers to use some of the money from his vetoes to fund the Department of Children and Family Services, which took an almost $90 million hit under the budget crafted by the House. Brown said negotiations over that spending, as well as facility closures, continue. “There’s pretty wide-ranging negotiations going on over changes in the budget,” he said. “The give and take that will continue to go on is probably the most important thing in that area.”

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