State Lawmakers Discuss Budget Cuts

In his budget address, Governor Pat Quinn proposed closing fourteen major state facilities and consolidating dozens of smaller offices. They range from prisons and mental health centers to forensic science and animal disease labs.

But as Brian Mackey reports, cutting government is easier said than done.

To members of the Illinois House and Senate, fiscal austerity sounds great. Until it comes to your home district.

By closing all those facilities, Governor Pat Quinn says Illinois could save nearly 89-million dollars in the next fiscal year alone.

He says the closures and consolidations are “hard … but necessary.”

QUINN: “They impact every region in our state, but the need for lower spending in our budget gives us no choice. In times like these, we must be accountable … and responsible.”

Quinn and his budget officials have emphasized “every region of our state” because Republicans say past attempts at closures have unfairly targeted their districts.

This time the political pain is being spread around.

Take the two prisons Quinn wants to close.

Dwight Correctional Center is a women’s facility about 90 minutes southwest of Chicago. It’s in a House and Senate district represented by Republicans.

In far Southern Illinois, the super-max Tamms Correctional Center is represented by two Democrats.

FORBY: “I don’t know. I’m mad. I don’t know why it’s closing. I think he’s doing the wrong thing.”

Senator Gary Forby, from Benton, is one of those Democrats.

He says the state’s prisons are already overcrowded.

FORBY: “But you know if he keeps closing prisons — he keeps shutting down — you know we ought to pass conceal-and-carry because we’re going to have to protect ourselves. Because we ain’t got no … we don’t have no place to put our people. We’re already over 15-thousand people over population now.”

A common knock on Quinn’s previous attempts to close state facilities is that he doesn’t have a plan for what to do with the people who would be displaced.

But at least on the prisons, his budget proposal is specific. Tamms has about 400 inmates. About half are in the “super-max” wing, doing the hardest time in the state. Those prisoners will be transferred to the maximum security wing at Pontiac Correctional Center.

The other half of Tamms’ inmates — minimum security — will be relocated accordingly.

The move will let the state lay off 300 employees. But two other prisons are within 40 miles of Tamms, and Quinn says some workers may be able to continue their careers.

And yet that knock about a lack of planning remains, particularly with regard to the Department of Human Services facilities Quinn wants to close.

In addition to two centers for people with developmental disabilities in Jacksonville and Centralia, Quinn says he’d shutter the mental health centers in Tinley Park and Rockford.

As you might expect, hometown Representative Chuck Jefferson isn’t happy about that.

JEFFERSON: “We got a lot of people that are very much in need of those services that they offer at that facility. So we’ll be communicating with the governor’s office and try to get him to change his mind and do something different.”

Jefferson is a Democrat. One of his Republican colleagues, David Leitch from Peoria, was less diplomatic.

LEITCH: “So far he’s thrown the developmentally disabled and the mentally ill people in our state under the bus.”

Under the bus. When it comes to closing facilities, you just can’t win.

And Senator Jeff Schoenberg says that attitude is a significant problem.

The Evanston Democrat is co-chair of the legislative committee that reviews proposals to close state facilities.

He says he’s been willing to make tough votes on closing state facilities. But his colleagues?

SCHOENBERG: “Downstate Republicans are not willing to make the difficult choices. They talk a good game about being fiscally conservative, but when it comes to closing a public facility that’s under-utilized or not cost-efficient, they’re like New Deal Democrats, and that tune’s got to change.”

Quinn has spread the pain across the state and across party lines. But it remains to be seen whether he might have spread it so far and wide that he won’t have anyone left willing to support his plan.

Brian Mackey

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