The first time a state legislative panel has gone this far in carrying out a statutory process for closing a state facility isn’t a pretty one. Whether intended or not, one Illinois town has been pitted against another after Gov. Rod Blagojevich in June proposed moving about 140 Illinois Department of Transportation positions from Springfield three hours south to Harrisburg.
It was easy to see the tension during a lengthy public hearing in the state Capitol building Thursday night. A packed committee room literally was divided. Harrisburg residents sat on one side in purple T-shirts encouraging people to visit the southern Illinois town. Springfield state employees sat on the other side in lime green T-shirts saying the move is the “wrong way.” More supporters and opponents overflowed to the floor below, where they sat in folding chairs lined up in two more hallways and watched the committee hearing on giant screens.
The dilemma facing the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, the panel overseeing the process, is muddled. Facts have been complemented, and sometimes contradicted, by politics and emotions in the past few months.
Union-backed employees repeatedly have shared personal stories, including having to leave a grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease in a nursing home, forcing a teen-age son who lives between his mother’s and father’s homes to decide between the two and challenging people with disabilities who have support networks and medical experts in Springfield. The governor's office has said employees can choose to stay in Springfield and take jobs with equal pay and equal benefits, although the employees are skeptical.
Harrisburg officials said they feel left out and overshadowed by Springfield. “We’re depressed, not stupid,” said Harrisburg Mayor Valerie Mitchell.
They’re both victims, one set to lose either way. The motivation behind the move is the most contentious point, particularly whether the idea is rooted in economics or in politics.
GOP legislators representing the Springfield area allege the governor’s proposal was retribution for supporting a measure that would allow voters to recall elected officials, a measure perceived to be directed at the governor. Local officials list various state-owned facilities in Springfield that have space and could house the division. “We can move them a block or two and not 200 miles,” said Rep. Raymond Poe, a Springfield Republican, during the hearing.
The administration refutes the allegation and says the move is intended to give a boost to an economically depressed area of the state.
Sen. Christine Radogno, a Lemot Republican, said this proposal fails to consider economic development through private investment or tourism funding. Having spent the morning in Chicago at a leaders’ meeting about a statewide capital plan that would encourage such development, Radogno said during the hearing: “Guess what. It ain’t happening. It is so dysfunctional, the governance of this state, that we’re reduced to talking about economic development in terms of moving jobs around.”
“I want to help you,” she said to local Harrisburg officials, “but I’m not sure that, just again, moving government jobs around should satisfy us that we’re doing adequate economic development. That’s not economic development.”
Secretary of Transportation Milton Sees testified that it all started because of the need to replace old carpet nearly two years ago. Rather than continue to pay for an expensive lease to a California owner to house the Division of Traffic Safety, the department looked for ways to save money once the lease expired. Shortly after, Sees said the governor directed him to find a division that could serve in a stand-alone facility and relocate to an economically depressed area of the state. The focus shifted from finding space in Springfield to determining whether the Division of Traffic Safety could relocate to southern Illinois, eventually leading to Harrisburg. “They are starving for jobs, literally,” Sees said.
The transportation department already signed a contract to purchase space in the Harrisburg facility for $812,000, using money from the state’s dedicated Road Fund. IDOT’s chief counsel Ellen Schanzle-Haskins added that the department could break that lease at any time with five day’s notice. She also said the purchase is frozen until after the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability issues a recommendation, due September 11. The recommendation, however, is not binding. The governor could move the positions, anyway.