SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn didn’t get any significant applause during his budget speech Wednesday, but some state lawmakers said that doesn’t mean they oppose his proposals.
Members of the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle sought to find some bright spots in Quinn’s grim, 25-minute recitation of the fiscal woes facing the state.
The governor called on the General Assembly to work with him to find ways to lower the cost of Medicaid and state employee retirement costs, but offered no blueprint for what he wants to do with those issues.
He also outlined a plan to close 59 state facilities, including two prisons, at a time when lawmakers are running for re-election.
“We are obviously at a crossroads. The chickens have come home to roost. We’re going to have to clean up the mess,” said state Sen. Mike Jacobs, D- East Moline.
“We’re going to hit a lot of nerves before this budget is done,” said state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington.
Downstate lawmakers were largely split on whether the governor’s plan to close prisons in Dwight and Tamms will go forward. Some said they could support some of the facilities being shuttered, while others said they strictly oppose the idea at a time when the state should be working to create and retain jobs.
“There are going to have to be closures. We need more consolidation of state government,” Dan Brady said.
“I suspect you’ll see some closures,” said state Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville.
“I think he makes a valid point about shrinking the size of state government,” added state Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet.
“I think these are going to happen,” Jacobs said. “Nobody wants to make these cuts. The question is: Do the cuts go far enough? People are clamoring for us to do something.”
Other lawmakers signaled they didn’t think Quinn would be successful in closing facilities.
“I’m skeptical. The track record is that nearly every budget he’s presented he’s proposed closures that didn’t end up happening,” said state Rep. Jason Barickman, R-Champaign, who is in the midst of a tough GOP primary for a seat in the Senate representing east central Illinois.
His opponent, state Sen. Shane Cultra, R-Onarga, pledged to fight Quinn’s plan to close Dwight Correctional Center, the state’s only maximum-security facility for women.
“I am deeply troubled by the Governor’s decision to go after Livingston County,” Cultra said. “We will be working over the next several weeks to present a united front because we are in this fight for the long haul.”
“There are some things here that probably need to be done. But is the will to do it there?” asked Cultra.
State Rep. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan, said he is concerned the governor’s plan to close facilities could divert attention away from the need to deal with Medicaid and pension costs.
“It seems like he’s actually creating more problems,” Verschoore said.
State Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, said he also is concerned that the threat of layoffs could pit the labor unions representing state workers against Quinn when it comes to hammering out some kind of agreement on pensions.
“I’m a little concerned about the direction he’s taken here,” Brady said.
State Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, said the governor should avoid laying people off while the state recovers from the recession. Among the cuts proposed by the governor is the closure of Tamms Correctional Center in Forby’s district.
“We need people working, pay taxes, buying cars, buying houses and spending money,” Forby said. “What he said today, I don’t think is going anyplace.”
State Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, also represents a district that includes Tamms and many of its nearly 300 employees.
“Alexander County already has a high unemployment rate. This would devastate those people,” Phelps said. “I am very, very upset by this and hopefully its not going to go anywhere.”
State Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, said he is willing to work with Quinn on Medicaid reform, but was leery of any attempt to shift pension costs to local school districts.
Mitchell did not criticize Quinn for trying to close an adult transition center in Decatur, saying he wants more details about it to ensure it won’t result in dangerous people being released.
“I’m trying to be bipartisan here to see where we can work with him to get out of this mess,” Mitchell said.
Like others, Mitchell raised questions about the closures.
“They are probably not going to happen,” Mitchell said.
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