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Prison closings to be facet of Quinn’s plan

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP photo)
Illinois' 2013 budget books are seen during a briefing to reporters Tuesday on the details of Gov. Pat Quinn's budget address today.

SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Pat Quinn prepared Tuesday to deliver an Illinois budget proposal stuffed with grim news including closing two prisons and 12 other state facilities, slashing Medicaid by $2.7 billion and cutting spending at most state agencies.

The facilities Quinn wants to close include the supermax prison at Tamms, a maximum-security prison for women at Dwight and six halfway houses for inmates nearing release, said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the budget publicly.

Of the other facilities Quinn will propose for closing, four are run by the Department of Human Services and two by Juvenile Justice.

Quinn was set to present his budget Wednesday in a speech to a joint session of the General Assembly.

In recent weeks, Quinn warned that Illinois must reduce the fast-growing price of health care for the poor and slow the annual growth in government pension contributions. He says most state agencies will see cuts of 9 percent, and he’s challenging other statewide officials to make similar cuts to their budgets.

He said universities and schools downstate and in the Chicago suburbs might be asked to share the cost of retirement benefits for their employees. Government workers might be required to work longer before retiring with full benefits or contribute more money to their pensions, he said.

All this comes after years of belt-tightening and a 66.7 percent increase in state income taxes last year.

Republicans on Tuesday criticized Quinn’s past actions and some of the ideas he’s likely to propose today.

Several legislators condemned the idea of making more schools share in retirement costs, which is already done in Chicago. They said schools can’t absorb those costs without hurting education or taxpayers.

“You’re either going to lose teachers or have a massive property tax increase,” said Rep. Ed Sullivan, R-Mundelein.

Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady, joined by U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, accused Quinn of showing no leadership on pensions and warned him not to build the budget on projections of Medicaid savings that may never materialize. They called for “a government we can afford,” but they declined to say how deeply Quinn should cut Medicaid or to comment on the merits of closing state facilities.

A governor’s budget proposal can be significantly changed by lawmakers, which happened last year when legislators felt he wanted to spend too much. Some of Quinn’s ideas this year, such as making schools contribute to pension costs, could prove particularly controversial.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees objected to the idea of closing facilities and laying off workers, saying the real solution is to end tax “giveaways” to businesses and the wealthy.

“Budget cuts have gone too far already, harming priorities like public safety and care for the most vulnerable. Further devastating cuts to public services and jobs are the worst possible approach to what ails our state,” AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said.

Illinois prisons are severely overcrowded. In November, 48,620 people were squeezed into space designed for 33,700. The Illinois Department of Corrections has begun counting areas such as gymnasiums when calculating the space available for housing inmates.

Closing facilities would further complicate the situation. The two prisons and six “adult transition centers” on Quinn’s list house 2,648 inmates.

Quinn’s other closures could be a repeat of last year, when he said several facilities need to be shut down because lawmakers hadn’t given him enough money to run them. They include a youth prison in Murphysboro and mental institutions in Rockford, Chester and Dixon. Those closures were avoided when lawmakers approved additional money to keep those and other facilities open.

Two other facilities, a mental institution in Tinley Park and a developmental center in Jacksonville, are in the process of being closed as their residents are transferred to community care.

Quinn has promised a little good news in his budget. He wants to eliminate a tax on natural gas and give tax breaks to families with children and businesses that hire military veterans. His office says he’ll also propose chipping away at the state’s vast backlog of unpaid bills.

Those costs would be offset by scouring the state’s tax code to find loopholes that don’t help the economy and can be eliminated, said Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson.

One of the few areas where Quinn wants to increase spending is education. Anderson said he will propose a $90 million increase, or about 1 percent, to help early childhood programs and college scholarships.

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