When Gov. Pat Quinn laid out his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and called for closing dozens of facilities around the state, he revived a debate started nearly a decade ago under then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Just how much authority should state lawmakers have to block the governor from closing facilities that are often major employers in an area and provide significant economic impact?
The issue could come to a head this spring with at least one bill pending that would specifically give the General Assembly a final word on whether a facility stays open or is closed.
Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, introduced Senate Bill 3564 that requires the General Assembly to vote on a facility closure after the bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability makes a recommendation. The bill is pending on the Senate floor.
“I’m planning on calling it,” Forby said.
He noted that the current process still allows the governor to do what he wants.
“All legislators have something in their district,” Forby said. “They ought to have a say-so.”
In the latest round of closures, Quinn wants to shutter the supermaximum-security Tamms Correctional Center in Forby’s district.
“He’s got to show a plan,” Forby said of the governor. “We’ve never seen no plans. We’ve never seen how much it’s going to cost to move people. We don’t know where he’s going to move them to. We don’t know how much money he’s going to save. Nothing.”
In addition to Tamms, other southern Illinois facilities are targeted, including the Murray Developmental Center in Centralia and a youth prison in Murphysboro.
The General Assembly has in place a process intended to slow down the closing of a state facility. After Blagojevich, a Democrat, tried to close two prisons in Republican areas, the legislature adopted the Facilities Closure Act. It requires the administration to document the reason for the closure, its economic impact, how services will be administered, where employees will be relocated and other issues.
It requires hearings in cases where a prison or mental health facility is to be closed. The hearings are conducted by the 12-member panel of lawmakers making up the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. Finally, COGFA issues a recommendation.
COGFA points out that no governor has taken an action contrary to the commission’s view. But COGFA’s recommendation is not binding, it is only advisory.
Forby’s bill would add another step to the process. After COGFA makes its recommendation, the House and Senate would have to vote to either keep a facility open or close it.
“The governor does not have to answer this,” Forby said. “If they say keep it open, he can go ahead and close it if he wants to.”
The governor’s office opposes Forby’s bill.
“This would be bad policy for the state of Illinois and prevent the governor from bringing Illinois into the 21st century of caring for people with developmental disabilities by closing outdated institutions and providing more access to community care,” Quinn spokeswoman Annie Thompson said in an email. “It would also prevent governors now and in the future from making the difficult decisions necessary to manage state government.”
Rep. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, is a member of COGFA and has sat through numerous hearings on facility closures. He wants to beef up legislative oversight of facility closures, but said he probably won’t vote for Forby’s bill if it gets to the House.
“If you take that to the full General Assembly, wow,” Poe said. “That would be crazy trying to figure all of that out.”
Poe said it wouldn’t be possible for all 177 members of the General Assembly to attend each of the closure hearings conducted by COGFA. That leaves COGFA members better informed about details of the closures. Each group of lawmakers — House and Senate Democrats and House and Senate Republicans — has representatives on COGFA.
He also said the closure process could get more politicized if the entire General Assembly voted on closures. COGFA is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
Instead, Poe said he thinks the law should be changed to give COGFA veto authority over a closure.
However, giving COGFA absolute veto power over a closure could raise issues of separation of powers.
The Jacksonville Developmental Center is among the facilities Quinn wants to close. It is in Republican Rep. Jim Watson’s district. Watson is proposing his own bill this year that requires a follow-up report from the administration when a facility like JDC is closed to document what impact the closure had. He also said he is inclined to support Forby’s bill.
“It may or may not change things, because the governor and majority (Democrats) may be able to put pressures otherwise,” Watson said. “At least it will be a continued debate, another stop, another check on some reckless actions.”
Watson said he thinks lawmakers felt they had resolved the issue last fall when Quinn wanted to close multiple state facilities, including JDC. Lawmakers approved additional money to keep them open through June 30, and Watson said he expected the closure issue to be debated this spring.
“Everyone thought we would tackle this during the next budget process,” Watson said. “Everyone except the administration, who two months later makes the announcement that Tinley Park (mental health center) and JDC are getting shut down and acted like it was some agreed-upon deal.”
Rep. John O. Jones, R-Mount Vernon, proposed a bill this spring to halt facility closures until a panel conducts a detailed, long-term study of closures. He said he is not pursing the bill for now and will instead support Forby’s bill.
“We should be having a say-so in this because we appropriate the money to be spent,” Jones said. “If (Quinn’s) wanting to close Tamms, we would have a specific bill that would say ‘no, we recommend that the governor keep Tamms open’ and pass legislation that it stay open.”
Doug Finke can be reached at 788-1527
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