By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD — Illinois needs to agree quickly on a pension-reform plan, or more prison closures and pending job losses are sure to come, Southern Illinois lawmakers say.
Unions are willing to make concessions, the lawmakers say, but they haven’t been given a place at the table.
“What you do with the unions is bring them in and sit them down at the table and talk to them: ‘Here’s our problem…’ and they’ll work with you. This governor has not worked with the unions yet to try to do that,” said state Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton.
“Unions are willing to sit down. They’re willing to talk. They’re willing to work something out. But instead of cutting things out before you sit down and work things out, (it’s) not the right way to do stuff.”
Brooke Anderson, spokeswoman for Gov. Pat Quinn, said the governor’s staff has been in “constant communication” with the unions about the prison closures. She did not respond when asked to comment about additional opportunities for unions to negotiate or make concessions to keep the facilities open.
“We have the responsibility to manage the state’s limited resources as efficiently as possible and make the difficult decisions necessary to restore fiscal stability in Illinois,” Anderson said. “These closures will allow the state to better live within our means and address the state’s most pressing needs.”
Quinn told lawmakers around the state Tuesday afternoon he still intends to shutter numerous correctional facilities, including three in southern Illinois, even though the Legislature included money for the facilities in the budget it approved at the end of May.
Illinois’ public pension system owes current and future retirees $83 billion more than it has in assets. Quinn and lawmakers have been looking for ways to slash the state’s budget, including facility closures, cuts to the Medicaid program, elimination of free health care for state retirees and pension reform.
Southern Illinois lawmakers, union leaders and elected officials said they were shocked by the governor’s plans to proceed with the prison closures, particularly in an area of the state already plagued by high unemployment.
Anderson said Quinn is not picking on any particular region of the state and noted various factors in deciding to close certain facilities, including how many people use the facilities, what facilities are nearby, and costs.
“These closures are spread geographically across the state,” she said. “The governor’s decision to close several facilities was made after careful consideration and extensive deliberation with the Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice.”
“I believe in negotiations and the collective-bargaining process. I believe that unions should be at the table,” Phelps said. “But right now they’re not asked to come to the table. They want to make some concessions, but they’re not asked to be at the table right now. I just think that’s absolutely wrong.”
Anders Lindall, spokesman for American Federation for State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents many of the workers affected by the impending closures, said Quinn’s intent has been unclear, because he’s had the budget bill for three weeks and has not acted to sign, veto or amend it.
“But if he uses his amendatory veto to cut funding for safe prisons, mental health care, homes for individuals with developmental disabilities and the thousands of jobs of men and women who provide those vital services, we will work with legislators to override those vetoes,” Lindall said.
Meanwhile, legislative leaders continue to work toward an agreement on pension reform in Illinois; talks collapsed in late May as the General Assembly wrapped up its session.
Leaders during a Thursday meeting in Chicago said they intend to use the next five weeks to study school-funding equality, apparently a result of talks over shifting pension costs from the state to local schools.
That pushes possible agreement on a reform bill to at least the end of July, even as pensions are costing Illinoisans $12.6 million a day, Quinn said.
Quinn, who has called for swift action on the matter, said he is urging leaders to come to an agreement this summer, well ahead of the November election and before the veto session begins in late November.
“I’m pushing as hard as I can (for a vote before the veto session). I’ll do it every day to alert those in the Legislature this is not something you can run in place on,” Quinn said. “This is a time for action. The leaders have to understand that waiting around for another election is really not the best prescription for pension reform.”
Back in southern Illinois, state Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, agreed the pension system is doomed to fail as things stand now, but he also questioned the governor’s credibility. Lawmakers thought they had a deal for the facilities to remain open if the funding was allocated in the budget, he said.
“I never voted to short the pension, and I’ve never been so proud of the fact that I never voted to short the pension. I spoke out against it every time we did. (But) we’ve still got to deal with that problem,” he said.
“We can come up with an agreement (on pensions) that is still fair, constitutional and is workable in the future. We’ve got to do that. But if it’s pending on the fact that a governor is going to give his word, his word is not anything unless he signs this (budget) and keeps these facilities open.”
Jayette Bolinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.