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Quinn's urges closings, consolidations in his budget address

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Listen to Governor Pat Quinn’s speech here


During his budget address Wednesday, Gov. Pat Quinn suggested cutting the state budget beyond overhauling pensions and Medicaid.

Quinn wants to close two prisons - including the state’s maximum security Tamms prison and a women’s facility in Dwight - and consolidate nearly 50 office buildings statewide to save on rent. Under his plan, six trasition centers that help parolees once they’ve been released would be closed, and the state would instead use electronic monitoring to track them.

Twenty-four Department of Human Service offices would be consolidated, two juvenile justice centers in Joliet and Murphysboro, and 16 telecommunications centers used by Illinois State Police would be blended. Under the plan, inmates would be relocated to other prisons by the end of August. Quinn called the closures hard but necessary in his budget address.

“They impact every region in our state but the need for lower spending in our budget gives us no choice,” Quinn said. “In times like these, we must be accountable and responsible.”

The planned closures and consolidations are expected to save the state about $88 million dollars. It also means about one thousand layoffs. In all, Quinn says his cuts would trim more than $400 million from state agencies under the governor’s control.

Quinn also called for a $2.7 billion reduction in the state’s Medicaid program. That’s about a fifth of the Medicaid budget. The state’s actual savings would be about half that, as the other half is federal money. The cuts could have outsized consequences for hospitals that serve the poor and uninsured. Safety net hospitals see a disproportionate number of low-income and disabled patients. So those facilities could be hit hard by any across-the-board cut in Medicaid reimbursement. Patrick Kitchen, a partner at consulting firm McGladrey, which with several safety net providers, said, “Programmatic reduction are almost guaranteed coming out of these proposed cuts. And in the near term, I think closures are certainly a possibility.”

The Association of Safety Net Hospitals released a statement saying, quote: “blanket cuts are not a viable solution.” But the cuts may not be applied equally to all providers - at least one lawmaker has called for softening the blow to safety net hospitals.

Jack Lavin, Quinn’s chief of staff, acknowledged to reporters in a Tuesday briefing that the cuts will be difficult.

“Every year we say this is toughest budget. But I’ll say it again. This year, this is the toughest budget we’ve ever faced,” he said.

The state owes more than $8 billion in unpaid bills, about $2 billion of which are Medicaid-related.

“Medicaid spending must be restructured to keep the system alive and well. This is not something you can blithely delay for another year,” Quinn said in his speech Wednesday. “Don’t plan on going home for the summer until we get this job done.”

Quinn said he would consider cutting payments to healthcare providers.

The state also is required to pay more than $5 billion into its pensions systems. Those two problems are swallowing the state’s general revenue fund, which is its main checking account.

One area that might see a boost is education. Quinn has proposed a slight increase in funding for K-12 education and higher education. He wants to devote $50 million more toward the Monetary Award Program, a college scholarship program.

‘Loophole lobby’

Quinn on Wednesday urged lawmakers to ignore a group he called “the loophole lobby.” The governor called out just one specific “loophole” - which benefits oil companies - but said his revenue chief will work with lawmakers to identify more.

“For too long, we’ve had a revenue code that looks like Swiss cheese, with plenty of loopholes for the powerful. Many of these loopholes are based on politics, not economics,” Quinn said.

The money saved would help pay down the state’s billions in unpaid bills, Quinn said, and allow for what he called “targeted tax relief” for families and businesses.

A predictably mixed reaction

But some Republicans questioned Quinn’s use of the term “loopholes.”

“Those of us who actually appreciate people that create jobs in the state of Illinois call them ‘incentives,’” state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale said.

Dillard added that if Illinois had a “friendly” business climate, the state wouldn’t need to “give away any loopholes.”

A similar statement followed from the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. It said the business community is “tired of hearing the incessant annual chorus of ‘loophole closing.’”

Republican state Sen. Tim Bivins of Dixon questioned whether prisons are the right place to cut.

“We need to provide the core services of government, you know, your public safety and that certainly would include prisons,” Bivins said Tuesday night. “We already have an overcrowding problem...I don’t know how all that’s going to wash. I have to see more details and exactly where [Quinn is] going with that.”

Quinn’s proposal to close two of the state’s eight youth prisons was greeted warmly by Betsy Clarke of the advocacy group, the Juvenile Justice Initiative. Clarke noted the state’s youth prison population is lower than it’s been in decades.

"[The reduced population is] really very good news for the public in Illinois,” Clarke said. “And this is really right-sizing the number of facilities. We have too many facilities for that lower population.”

The union represeting many of the adult and youth prison employees warned of fallout from the facility closures. AFSCME Council 31 has been engaged in a bitter fight with Quinn in recent years over aborted pay raises and other spending-cutting measures.

“Budget cuts have gone too far already, harming priorities like public safety and care for the most vulnerable,” the union’s executive director, Henry Bayer, said in a statement. “Further devastating cuts to public services and thousands of lost jobs are the worst possible approach to what ails our state.”

The final budget will depend on negotiations with the General Assembly. Lawmakers have until May 31, the final day of their spring session, to agree on a balanced budget.

WBEZ’s Sam Hudzik, Gabriel Spitzer and Dulce M. Mora contributed.

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