Friday, June 27, 2008

Transportation jobs still in limbo

By Bethany Jaeger
The hype over moving an Illinois Department of Transportation building from Springfield to southern Illinois goes beyond the roughly 110 jobs at stake. It begs the question whether the administration will be sincere in following a statutory process for closing state facilities and whether politics will overshadow policy in the decision.

The governor announced this afternoon that he intends to move the department’s Division of Traffic Safety from Springfield to Harrisburg in Saline County. The press release says the move would save $12.8 million over the next decade, while allowing much-needed economic development in southern Illinois. Several local officials, on the other hand, argue that there are numerous options for cheaper office space in Springfield and no reason to move the workers, who travel throughout the state for their work, away from the centrally located city.

The governor made it sound as though the move was final, but there’s a process that must take place under state law before the state can close a facility. Skeptics don’t buy the logic and question the motivation. Whether politics or cost-savings are behind the move, it’s the process that deserves attention.

The public body in charge of overseeing that process is the bipartisan legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. Dan Long, executive director of the oversight panel, says the State Facilities Closure Act is pretty clear: “No action may be taken to implement the recommendation for closure of a State facility until 50 days after the filing of any required recommendation.”

The administration has to file its recommendation to close the Springfield facility by July 1. That hadn’t happened by Friday morning, even though the governor officially announced Harrisburg would receive the IDOT Division of Traffic Safety shortly after. An IDOT spokesman said the intent is to file the necessary paperwork by the deadline. A public hearing has to be held, currently scheduled for July 31 in Springfield. Then the administration can’t actually close the Springfield facility for 50 days, which lands on September 11. The governor’s press release says the move would take six to nine months.

“If they’re acting already to move before the 50 days after the recommendation’s filed, I think it’s a violation of the act,” Long said. If that happens: “I suppose someone could go to court and challenge it.”

A legal challenge could come from anyone from the commission itself, to the legislators who serve on the panel, to the legislators who represent Springfield, to the public employee unions that represent the IDOT employees.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 represents the 110 of the workers affected by the move, according to spokesman Anders Lindall. Management would remain in Springfield. Lindall said he won’t speculate about the administration’s intent but did say, “We’re troubled by the way this entire process has proceeded so far.”

He compared the move to previous attempts to close Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet and another correctional center in Pontiac. “What’s common to each of them is that it seems very clear that there’s no logic or planning or sound policy behind any of them. Whether it’s political or whether it’s meant as a threat, I don’t know. But I do know that we don’t think it’s appropriate for anyone to threaten people’s lives and livelihoods, to threaten their jobs. And that’s what’s happening here.”

One political undertone involves the ongoing negotiations between AFSCME and the administration. They have to agree on a contract that spells out the amount state employees make and the amount they have to pay for health care and retirement benefits for the next four years. Threatening any state employee jobs could be perceived as a threat to compromise — or else.

Another political undertone involves the legislators whose districts would lose the Springfield jobs. The move first was announced the day after Springfield Sen. Larry Bomke, a Republican, voted in support of a measure that would have allowed the public to decide whether to recall public officials, commonly seen as a swipe against Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Bomke said the motivation seems clear to him: Retribution for the recall vote.

“I don’t think [the governor] likes Springfield,” he said. “I don’t think Springfield cares much about him.”

But Bomke said he felt skeptical that the move will actually happen. “This governor has a tendency to make announcements and then not follow through. So I’m hopeful this will be another case of that.”

Rep. Rich Brauer, a Petersburg Republican, described the plan as an “ill-informed idea that should be dropped,” as it would move some data entry employees with disabilities away from their homes and potentially affect their health care options. But, he said, “Unfortunately, the process isn’t binding. It’s going to take public opinion to change the fact that he has a lot of leeway on where he wants [to station them] and the fact that state government is here in Springfield.”

The question is whether the process will work as intended. After the public hearing, the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability has to review the information gathered and issue a recommendation about whether to close the facility and move the jobs. The commission’s opinion, as Brauer pointed out, is not binding. The governor could still move the jobs. But in the past, the governor has followed the commission’s recommendations.

The governor’s press office did not return repeated phone calls or an e-mail.

Bomke said the governor has thumbed his nose at the law before (mainly in his push for health care expansions), and this time also would come with consequences. “If he does, then it gives us clear grounds to sue him,” Bomke said.

Would he do that? “Absolutely. In a heartbeat.”

Note: The State Journal-Register posted this article saying IDOT employees who don't want to move to Harrisburg would be offered same-level jobs within the agency.

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