Written by The Chicago Defender
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn won a contentious legislative battle over prison closures Wednesday, convincing the House to let his budget veto of $56 million stand, which capped off a shortened veto session that also featured a new pension proposal and movement on a plan to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.
Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, wants to move most of that money to child-protective services, but he needs legislative approval that an aide said he'll seek in January.
Quinn sliced the money from the state's budget last summer over the objection of the General Assembly, which wanted to keep open two prisons, two juvenile detention centers and three halfway houses that the governor says are no longer affordable.
The largest state workers union is continuing to fight the closures in court. And it looked like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees had legislative support after the Senate voted last week to override the budget veto. An override in the House would have locked up the money, but House lawmakers skipped a vote and adjourned Wednesday, allowing the cuts to stand.
House Majority Leader Joseph Lyons, D-Chicago, said he believed the veto override didn't have the votes necessary and such action wasn't worth the effort — an override wouldn't have forced Quinn to spend the money on the correctional facilities, just keep him from spending it elsewhere.
Quinn, whose approval rating has dipped in recent months, hailed the move as an important victory for taxpayers. He estimated the shutdowns — including the high-security Tamms prison and the maximum-security Dwight women's lockup — would save about $88 million a year.
"These closures will strengthen our long-term effort to cut state expenses and put Illinois on sound financial footing," he said in a statement.
Quinn has argued that Tamms and some juvenile detention centers are underused and that developmentally disabled residents in state institutions would fare better in community settings. He says that money can be moved to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to prevent layoffs of hundreds of child abuse investigators.
Still, the state facilities could remain open.
AFSCME got a preliminary injunction blocking some of the closures. The union has argued that moving inmates and workers from shuttered prisons to overcrowded facilities presents security risks.
"It's obviously a big disappointment but most definitely not the end of this fight," AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said of the House' decision. "We will work with lawmakers to find another way to restore needed funding for corrections and juvenile justice."
Quinn wants most of the money diverted from the facilities to the Department of Children and Family Services. He needs legislative approval for that, which budget spokesman Abdon Pallasch said Quinn will seek in the last days of the current session early in the new year.
The five-day veto session — where lawmakers also defeated Quinn's proposed assault weapons ban — set the stage for what could be a blockbuster lame-duck session in January, when Quinn has set a deadline to deal with Illinois' worst-in-the-nation pension problem.
The governor spent much of the year calling for an overhaul, provided outlines on what he thinks would work and launched a social media campaign to build support. On Wednesday, lawmakers introduced their own bill to address the estimated $95 billion in unfunded liability.
The proposal, which will likely come up in January, includes cost-of-living increases for retirees and requires workers to contribute more to their retirement. A Quinn spokeswoman said the Democratic governor welcomed the contribution.
Other issues that might come up next month are medical marijuana, gambling expansion and a plan to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.
Quinn has said recently that he's open to a compromise on a gambling expansion, which Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel supports. But Quinn says it won't happen without addressing pensions first.
In January, lawmakers are expected to take up a bill that would make Illinois the third state in the U.S. to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. This week, the Senate approved the bipartisan plan to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, which comes weeks after Republican suffered major Nov. 6 election losses they blamed partly on lack of outreach to minorities and immigrants.
The plan would allow the estimated 250,000 illegal immigrant who drive in Illinois the ability to get licenses and insurance without facing deportation.