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Gov. Pat Quinn on pension mess: ‘Everything is on the table’

Gov. PQuinn. (AP/Seth Perlman File photo)

Gov. Pat Quinn. (AP/Seth Perlman, File photo)

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Updated: February 22, 2012 8:44PM

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn took his case for a budgetary crash diet directly to state lawmakers Wednesday, pushing a grim assortment of prison closures and spending cuts in a spending plan that he said wasn’t built around “budget fantasies” but rather “hard realities.”

“I’m here today to tell you the truth,” the governor said during a speech to a joint session of the General Assembly. “This budget contains truths that may not be what you want to hear. But these are truths that you do need to know.”

With Illinois still deeply in the throes of a budget meltdown, the governor’s proposed $33.8 billion spending plan — which is up 1.5 percent from last year — includes the painful closure or consolidation of 59 state facilities.

Chief among those closures is the super-maximum-security prison in far downstate Tamms, a 14-year-old prison that the American Civil Liberties Union described this week as a “vessel of human suffering and sinkhole for taxpayer dollars.”

During his speech, Quinn also addressed the need to cut state spending on Medicaid services and pension costs for state workers and teachers, but only spoke in glancing references to the two multibillion-dollar spending pressures that have state government on the verge of paralysis.

Quinn has identified the need to cut $2.7 billion in Medicaid, and the state faces a $5.2 million tab for public pensions in the next fiscal year, triple the amount from five years ago.

“The truth is that over the past 35 years, too many governors and members of the General Assembly have clung to budget fantasies rather than confronting hard realities, especially with respect to pension and Medicaid investments,” Quinn said.

“Today, our rendezvous with reality has arrived,” he said.

On pensions, Quinn said, “everything is on the table.

“We need to do pension reform in a way that’s meaningful, constitutional and fair to the employees who have faithfully contributed to the system,” he said.

With Medicaid, the program that provides health care to 2.7 million low-income Illinoisans, Quinn warned of the program’s potential “collapse” without action, but he didn’t offer specific steps to avoid that.

“In order to reduce cost pressures, we need to reconsider the groups who are eligible for Medicaid, the services we cover under the program, the utilization of these services and the way and amount we pay them,” he said.

There also wasn’t any clear road map offered toward significantly paying down the unprecedented $8 billion backlog of unpaid bills that the state has been pushing from one budget cycle to another as the problem worsens. Under the governor’s plan, only $163 million would be devoted toward that purpose

Quinn’s plan didn’t include any new tax increases, and the governor abandoned a push to borrow $8 billion to devote to the state’s unpaid vendors.

While most key details of the governor’s speech had trickled out during the week, one new proposal to emerge was a push to end what Quinn called a “corporate loophole” that enables oil companies to avoid paying Illinois taxes on income they derive from oil drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and other offshore areas. Quinn’s administration estimated the value of that at $75 million.

“Part of the loophole revenue can be used to provide targeted tax relief for hard-working families and businesses across Illinois,” he said.

Besides Tamms, Quinn also wants to close Illinois’ only maximum-security prison for women in Downstate Dwight, six halfway houses, two juvenile prisons, four mental institutions and nearly two dozen other offices.

The closures and consolidations are expected to net $88.9 million in savings and result in more than 1,110 layoffs, according to administration budget documents.

State government’s largest employee union, AFSCME Council 31, called Tamms and the Dwight Correctional Center “irreplaceable” and warned the prison-system moves could pose a danger to staff and to the public.

“Closing them would trigger a dangerous domino effect, destabilizing the entire correctional system and complicating an overcrowding epidemic that the Quinn administration has tried to cover up by misrepresenting prison capacity limits,” union spokesman Anders Lindall said.

The decision to shutter the state adult transition centers and equip prisoners with electronic ankle bracelets “raises serious questions about public safety, especially since the state’s approximately 300 parole agents are already severely strained by their responsibility to monitor more than 30,000 parolees,” Lindall said.

Republicans didn’t balk at the governor’s threatened closures but zeroed in on the slight spending growth in Quinn’s plan.

“I give credit for the areas where he is making cuts,” said state Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine). “It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough if the overall status of the budget is to increase spending, which is what his budget does. So the idea that somehow fiscal responsibility has come to the Quinn administration is patently false.”

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