SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Pat Quinn won a contentious legislative battle over prison closures – along with the ability to direct millions in state money toward child services – on Wednesday, capping off a shortened veto session that featured a new pension proposal and movement on a plan to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.
Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, had proposed cutting $56 million from the state's budget and shutting down two prisons, two juvenile detention centers and three halfway houses, a plan a major union opposed and took to the courts.
It appeared lawmakers were also ready to reject the idea after the state senators voted last week to override Quinn's decision. 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 Speaker Mike Madigan didn't think calling a vote was a "necessary action to take," said his spokesman Steve Brown.
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 underutilized 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.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 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."
The five-day veto session – where lawmakers also defeated Quinn's proposed assault weapons ban – set the stage for 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, a gambling expansion, 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.
The bills are SB2474, HB6258 and SB957.
Follow Sophia Tareen at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen.