SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) – Listen to his union critics and you’d get the idea that Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn wants to throw disabled people into the street, set free dangerous criminals and hand bags of cash to corporations while handing pink slips to state employees.
“Pat Quinn says he’s for shared sacrifice. Sounds like he means middle-class people sacrifice and the CEOs get a bigger share,” said a recent radio ad by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The facts are more complex than AFSCME’s harsh ads acknowledge.
MENTAL ILLNESS AND DISABILITIES
One AFSCME ad says Quinn is “trying to push hundreds of people with severe disabilities out of the place they call home, and he’s ignoring the voices of their loved ones.”
Quinn is changing the way people with major developmental disabilities get care from the state. Instead of housing them in institutions, he wants Illinois to join most other states in emphasizing community care group homes, their own apartments, with their parents and so forth. So he definitely is moving people “out of the place they call home,” but he’s not leaving them to fend for themselves.
The families of some people living in the institutions, located in Jacksonville and Centralia, object to the change. They worry that community care won’t be good enough or that their loved ones will be disoriented and unhappy in a new setting. However, many families support the new policy and advocates for the disabled overwhelmingly believe community care is the best option.
Is Quinn “ignoring” the concerns of those who disagree? Not really.
True, people living in an institution targeted for closure will have to move, no matter what their preference. But the administration says that if a family absolutely rejects community care, the disabled resident can move to one of the remaining institutions. The administration also promises to work closely with families to design community care plans tailored individually to each person.
The governor also is closing mental hospitals in Tinley Park and Rockford. The goal there is to put more money into treating people’s underlying problems in the community, before they develop into emergencies that require hospitalization.
An AFSCME ad says, “law enforcement officials say Pat Quinn’s cuts would make our streets less safe.” Another warns of “more dangerous, overcrowded prisons, releasing hundreds of prisoners into our communities and cutting the staff who monitor them.”
These are certainly real concerns, and the ads are correct that police and prison experts have spoken out.
Prisons present the biggest risk. They already house more than 48,000 inmates in space designed for 33,704, and Quinn wants to close two of them. That means more people crammed into tighter space, potentially increasing tensions and making work more dangerous for the guards.
Quinn also plans to close six transitional centers, which are basically halfway houses that prepare inmates for life on the outside. That means the roughly 1,000 prisoners they house will be released and monitored electronically. The administration says “only the lowest risk, minimum-security offenders” will be approved for this option.
But at the same time Quinn wants to parole more inmates, he appears to be cutting the number of parole agents. Budget documents show a one-third reduction in the number of agents, a number the Corrections Department won’t confirm or deny. The department only says it is “reorganizing” parole but not reducing its functions.
Closing these state institutions is likely to eliminate somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 government jobs, most of them held by AFSCME members. That will undoubtedly cause a ripple effect through the communities where those people live. One study, which looked at just eight of the 14 planned closures, predicted a $250 million economic blow.
AFSCME notes the contradiction in Quinn cutting jobs while saying job-creation is his top priority. Some economic experts would agree that eliminating state jobs is bad for Illinois’ sputtering economy.
But Quinn is cutting the jobs as a step toward the larger goal of balancing the state budget. Illinois’ failure to pay its bills has been a drag on the economy, and its inability to put money toward critical needs has made life more difficult for vulnerable people across the state. Continuing mismanagement has also hurt the state’s ability to attract business.
“Why is Quinn pushing these cuts?” AFSCME asks in one ad. The answer: “To pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks he gave to big corporations that turned around and eliminated hundreds of Illinois jobs.”
That’s a stretch.
The state’s financial problems are so vast $8 billion in overdue bills, for instance that these cuts would be under discussion even if Quinn and the General Assembly hadn’t approved tax breaks for some businesses that were threatening to leave.
The total tax break package, which also includes relief for the working poor and to businesses of all sizes, should cost about $330 million next year. In other words, if Illinois collected all that money and used it to pay bills, roughly 95 percent of the backlog would remain.
The union is correct that one of the corporations that got tax relief has since cut jobs. Sears Holding Corp. got $150 million in state tax breaks over 10 years and then announced 100 layoffs at its suburban Chicago headquarters, leaving 6,100 jobs there.