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The governor and Legislature have awakened the sleeping giant. It is known as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. It is the largest union of state employees.

AFSCME is campaigning for better government - government that will better serve the union's members, anyway.

AFSCME has traditionally backed Democratic candidates. But this time around it has endorsed Judy Baar Topinka as the Republican candidate for governor and has not endorsed either candidate in the Democratic primary for governor.

That's an oddity, but it appears Gov. Rod Blagojevich got the message.

He announced Wednesday in his annual budget address that the state will open a new, but empty prison in Thomson. It means hiring 75 employees, most of whom will likely be AFSCME members. That's a far cry from the 700 employees originally planned for the maximum-security prison that has sat empty because of statewide staffing cutbacks caused by budget shortages. The governor's staff said this is just a start. The staff will likely say it has been working on this plan for months.

But we don't believe in coincidences in politics. Things happen for a reason. In politics, it's for votes. And this prison plan smells of an attempt by the governor to get back AFSCME's support before the March 21 primary election.

Even residents near the prison are skeptical.

"Seeing is believing," Carroll County Board Chairwoman Sharon Hook of Thomson told Lee News Service. "It's an election year. A lot of people are out there promising a lot of things. Excuse us for being a little snide up here, but we've heard all of this before."

The governor's budget promise is likely to get legislative support, whether the new prison is needed or not. Democrats want AFSCME's support in the fall general election. Republicans will probably fall in line if they think there is even a slight chance of getting AFSCME's support.

Members should look at AFSCME Executive Director Henry Bayer's assessment of Illinois services. He sent the following to newspaper editors throughout the state: "I am writing to let you know about the Campaign for Responsible Priorities, a new initiative to call attention to the stark decline in state services caused by years of bad budgets and misplaced priorities from Springfield.

"It's a hard but inescapable fact that many essential public services provided by the state - including those related to public safety, public health, child welfare, environmental protection and more - have deteriorated in quality and efficacy over the past four years."

He goes on to say thousands of state employees have been cut so many agencies are at a crisis point.

So, Bayer's campaign group has prepared a series of reports on the effects of budget cuts, beginning with "Maximum Insecurity," about unsafe conditions in Illinois prisons - that has a familiar ring - and "Without Honor," on quality and access to care in state veterans homes.

With such cutting remarks, we question how AFSCME members could ever support Blagojevich again, or any legislators who voted for such cuts.

It will be interesting to see just how many new initiatives from the governor's office involve hiring employees in areas dominated by AFSCME members.

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