Even though he was successful in shutting down state parks for a while, Gov. Rod Blagojevich became like the little boy who cried wolf when it came to talking about closing state institutions.
Everyone knew it was mostly just talk designed to extract some kind of deal from the General Assembly.
That’s why some Springfield insiders last week were raising the specter that Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to close prisons in Tamms and Dwight, a youth facility in Murphysboro, developmental centers in Jacksonville and Centralia and halfway houses in Decatur and Carbondale is merely a ploy to garner support for an overhaul of the state’s deeply underfunded employee retirement programs.
Most of the targeted facilities are in legislative districts represented by Republicans, who are reluctant to go along with the governor and Democrats in a plan to shift the cost of providing state workers with retirement benefits from the state to local school districts.
The Tamms supermax prison is represented by two pro-union, pro-gun Democrats — state Rep. Brandon Phelps of Harrisburg and state Sen. Gary Forby of Benton — who aren’t typically inclined to support a plan that would reduce benefits for unionized state workers.
To be sure, not all of Quinn’s closure threats are being driven by the possibility of trading votes. He and his administration have been clear in saying they want to close centers housing developmental disabled Illinoisans in favor of smaller group home settings. And, he and his administration also have made it clear they think the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice should be downsized.
That likely spells doom for the Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro and the Jacksonville Developmental Center, no matter what kind of deals might be in the offing.
The fate of the other facilities is less clear.
The drumbeat to close Tamms has been strong since Quinn took over, but the General Assembly gave him money to not only keep it open, but to retrofit it to become a less controversial minimum- or medium-security facility.
Closing Dwight Correctional Center is opposed by Republicans and Democrats alike and could result in even more overcrowding within the state’s over-stuffed prisons.
For now, pension overhaul talks are taking place behind closed doors. There are murmurs that nothing might happen until after the November election, when there will be a larger-than-usual number of lame duck lawmakers unburdened by a need to please their constituents back home.
The Quinn folks gave somewhat conflicting answers last week about whether some of the facilities could be kept open if a pension deal is reached.
One Quinn mouthpiece initially said there is no link between pensions and the closures because any pension reform done this year won’t necessarily have an effect on other state spending.
Later, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, issued a statement seemingly linking the two issues:
“While his decision to downsize corrections and juvenile justice facilities and restructure Medicaid brings Illinois closer to living within our means, we must achieve meaningful pension reform to end the squeeze on funding for public safety, education and other critical services,” she said in a statement.
Quinn then came along Thursday and put a price tag on the inaction, saying every day that goes by without pension reforms adds $12.6 million to the unfunded pension liability — even though the state is already poised to fully pay this year’s pension obligation.
As it stands now, pension talks are on hold until early August. The facilities targeted by Quinn are scheduled to close Aug. 31.
Chip on shoulder
It sure sounds like it wouldn’t take much for Forby, a Democrat, to join with state Rep. Bill Mitchell, a Forsyth Republican, in pushing a bipartisan plan to make Cook County the 51st state.
In a statement issued Tuesday after Quinn’s plan to close Tamms emerged, Forby again played to the anti-Chicago fervor of his district’s voters — a move that Mitchell has already perfected in central Illinois in recent months.
“It is stunning and sad the lengths this governor will go to punish southern Illinois. It’s as if he is cutting off his nose to spite his face,” Forby said in a statement.