Editor's Note: This article was created by aggregating news articles from Illinois Watchdog, formerly Illinois Statehouse News.
SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Pat Quinn increased transparency in one part of state government this week, but his own office failed to release emails that could shine light on his handling of public discourse about prison closures.
Prepaid tuition fund to become more transparent
Illinois families who invested in the state’s troubled prepaid tuition program will enjoy more transparency in the system because of legislation signed into law Wednesday.
The prepaid tuition program has been a source of consternation for legislators and parents because of controversial investment decisions and an unfunded liability of more than $500 million.
Josh Sharp, director of government relations for the Illinois Press Association, which champions open meetings and public records, applauded eliminating the open meetings exemption for the fund. It goes beyond the issue of taxpayer dollars, he said.
“You’re dealing not just with taxpayer money, but with people who decided to give money to the state to invest for them. We don’t think those decisions should be made necessarily behind closed doors,” he said.
Quinn’s office denies request for messages about southern Illinois appearance
Gov. Pat Quinn’s office last week denied a request for emails and texts regarding his appearance at a southern Illinois news conference that may have been moved to avoid protesters.
The July 16 appearance to talk about the drought originally was to take place at a Waltonville farmstead but instead took place in a field several miles away. Police monitored the entrance to the dirt lane that led to the location.
Rumors circulated that Quinn’s staff moved the event to avoid state workers and families who were protesting his proposed facility closures. The governor’s spokeswoman denied the rumors.
The governor’s attorney denied a Freedom of Information Act request by Illinois Watchdog, formerly Illinois Statehouse News, seeking correspondence about the event for a several-day period. Although about 10 emails were found that pertained to the FOIA request, the attorney denied the request, citing an exemption that allows officials to withhold preliminary drafts, notes and recommendations.
Don Craven, a Springfield attorney who specializes in open government matters, said the “preliminary drafts” exemption is overused and that taxpayers are entitled to review those types of communications.
“It’s got nothing to do with frantic emails or texts among the governor’s staff about where to set up a podium so he doesn’t have to look at state-employee protesters,” Craven said.
Quinn orders $40,000 special session to tackle pensions
Gov. Pat Quinn for a special session later this month to hammer out pension reform, one of his top priorities for the state.
The cost for the state will be about $40,000.
Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, asked the governor to rethink the plan, saying he would call the Senate back for a regular session that day, which, by state law, makes lawmakers ineligible to be reimbursed for travel costs. If the governor calls a special session, taxpayers foot the bill for travel costs.
“I share the governor’s interest in resolving the lingering pension issues, but it makes no sense to spend thousands of taxpayer dollars when there is an easy, no-cost alternative,” Cullerton said.
Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson on Friday said the governor feels “there can be no more delay on an issue that is costing taxpayers $12.6 million a day and putting the state at risk of a future downgrade.”
Legislative leaders met several times this summer in Chicago to come up with a pension-reform plan, after a proposal fell apart in the House in the final hours of the regular legislative session. Shifting suburban and downstate school pension costs from the state to local school districts was a sticking point for some legislators.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, already called representatives back on Aug. 17 to vote on possibly expelling indicted state Rep. Derrick Smith, D-Chicago, from the House. Madigan reportedly told union leaders he also intended to call a pension vote.
AFSCME files suit over proposed prison closures
The union that represents the state’s correctional officers and other prison workers filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to stop Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to close several correctional facilities throughout the state.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 filed the lawsuit in Alexander County in far southern Illinois. Alexander County is home to the Tamms “super-max” prison, which is one of the facilities slated for closure. The union is seeking an injunction to prevent inmates from being transferred to other prisons that are overcrowded and unsafe.
“The Quinn Administration is failing its duty to ensure a safe workplace for its employees. Instead, it is sending men and women to work each day in prisons that the state’s own actions are making more dangerous,” said AFSCME Council 31 executive director Henry Bayer in a news release.
“We’re asking the court to put a stop to these actions until our members are assured that when they pass through those prison gates, they will be as safe as possible.”
Other facilities to be closed are the Dwight Correctional Center; adult transition centers in Carbondale, Chicago and Decatur; and youth centers inJoliet and Murphysboro.
Meanwhile, longtime observers of the state’s prison system say the inmate assaults, lockdowns and other issues brought to light by AFSCME and reported in the media since mid-July have existed for years. What’s new is the attempt to apply public pressure to the Quinn administration, they say.
“There is increased tension, so there’s an increase in prisoner-on-prisoner fights, but that’s because it’s hot. And the prisons have been on lockdown and they’re overcrowded, and there are no programs left so everybody is sitting in their cells. So there’s a good story here, but it’s not the one being told,” said Alan Mills, legal director of the Chicago-based Uptown People’s Law Center, a nonprofit legal center that handles cases on behalf of inmates.
— Jayette Bolinski