Thursday, October 27, 2011

COGFA shoots down facility closures

By Jamey Dunn 

A legislative panel voted today to reject the closure of four state facilities because legislative leaders plan to work with the governor on budget tweaks that may make some closures unnecessary.

Gov. Pat Quinn called for the closure of seven institutions and the layoff of more than 1,900 state workers. Quinn said the budget approved by the legislature in the spring would not fund basic services through the end of the year, and the closures would be needed to keep government afloat. “Something has to give, and what has to give is we have to close down some of those facilities,” Quinn said when he announced the closures. Under Quinn’s timetable, the state would start closing facilities next month, with the last of the closures coming early next year.

But lawmakers sitting on the Commission of Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) disagreed with Quinn’s tactics.

Legislators who voted for and against the closures generally agreed that the state does need to consider shutting down some of its institutions. Those who voted on both sides of the issue also agreed that Quinn’s plan was rushed and a coherent transition would take time. “We’re trying to do something in three or four weeks that we’ve waited eight years to do,” Hinsdale Republican Rep. Patricia Bellock said at this hearing this morning. “We want to close facilities, but taking a look at all the lives and jobs and people in these residences, it’s a very, very hard decision to make.”

Bellock, a co-chair of COGFA, said budget cuts affecting small providers that offer community-based care to the mentally ill and developmentally disabled raised concerns about whether they will be able to handle the needs of patients currently housed in state facilities. “The community providers have lost money, so to put that all on them and the hospitals … it’s a very. very difficult decision, especially when we’re looking at the fragile lives of the mentally ill. … It’s just not the one place. It’s how it affects the entire mental health system in Illinois.”

Other lawmakers echoed Bellock’s call for a more comprehensive look at all the institutions in the state to best determine where closures can be made. “We need to be taking a systemic look at all of these, and there may be a need for some closures, but it needs to be done in a much more organized [way] and in a manner that’s going to make financial sense and fit into reality,” said Sen. Dave Syverson.

Syverson, a Rockford Republican, argued that the closure of the Singer Mental Health Center in Rockford would not result in savings because the center is used for emergency cases — the average stay is 14 days — and such patients would have to be transported long distances to get similar treatment. “From a dollar standpoint, it does not make sense. The idea of how can we operate these facilities more cost-effectively immediately makes sense. Can some of these services of any of these facilities, can they be transferred to the private sector over a period of time with a legitimate transition plan? … That is a possibility, but again, that is going to have an upfront cost to it. And if the goal here is to try to save $50 million, that’s not going to occur.” Singer was in Syverson’s district until a new legislative map was drawn this year.

However, Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who voted to close Singer, said that the budget crisis is forcing lawmakers to make choices that could be damaging. “In this kind of environment — and it’s happening in other states too — the old decision-making models where it’s harm versus no harm or risk versus no risk don’t really work. The decisions we’re going to have to make are harm versus less harm and risk versus less risk because people are going to be hurt by the decisions we make,” said Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat. “We don’t have the luxury of unlimited time or lengthy time. I wish we did. … And we’re going to have to make these decisions with incomplete information.”

Chicago Sen. Donne Trotter, a budget point man for the Senate Democratic leadership, scolded lawmakers who backed budget cuts in the past and voted today to keep facilities open. “I think that everyone that represents these districts that didn’t vote for some funding to make sure that these most-vulnerable people are taken care of should be voted out of office,” Trotter said. “That was not the concern when they were voting last May. Hard decisions had to be made … and we have to make them now. So there’s a story that should tug at everybody’s heart every place we go, but some hard decisions have to be made. … Do the right thing. Either close these places or come up with funding to ensure that we can keep them open until we can find some other alternatives.”

He added “This is B.S. The chickens have come home to roost, and the egg is on your face.”

All the members of the panel agreed to keep the Chester Mental Health Center open, arguing that there is no other facility prepared to house the criminally insane. “There are two facilities I think that we just couldn’t close, and it’s incumbent upon us to find the resources. One is Chester, one is Logan [Correctional Center in Lincoln,]” said Rep. Michael Tryon, a Crystal Lake Republican. “[Chester is] the only maximum security facility for the criminally insane and those who are not fit to stand trial. … These are not the kind or prisoners that we should put in Alton [Mental Health Center] or any other facility.”

The committee also voted to recommend that the Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro and the Jack Mabley Developmental Center in Dixon remain open.

Those who did not vote in favor of some of the closures said that they were still open to the idea of closing facilities, but they want to see how budget negotiations during veto session pan out. “I think that these are things that really take time. A lot of things are happening. We’re looking at maybe redistribution money in the budget. I think there’s more information that we need. I don’t think that it really does us any good to be hasty just for the sake of haste,” said Rep. Al Riley, a Democrat from Olympia Fields.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said that the four party caucuses plan to come together with Quinn and discuss shifting about $240 million in funds to other areas, including keeping facilities open. He said some of the money would come from Quinn’s line item vetoes. Cross said House members are open to moving dollars around, as long as the spending total is the same as the original budget passed in May.

COGFA plays an advisory role when it comes to facility closures, so Quinn could ignore today’s votes.

However, Evanston Democratic Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, co-chair of COGFA, said, “No administration has ever moved contrary to how the commission has recommended.” He said he expects the commission to vote on more closures during the last week of veto session.

"While we respect the role of COGFA, their recommendations do not change the reality of the budget we are tasked with managing. These are not closures that we sought to accomplish this fiscal year; we are forced to close these facilities now because there is not enough money appropriated to run all these facilities for the entire year. Unless the General Assembly takes action, we must continue to seek these closures and other actions to responsibly manage the budget, and we will continue to do so," said a prepared statement from Quinn's office.

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