Gov. Pat Quinn scored a big victory Friday in his plan to balance the state budget. Arbitrator Steve Biereg ruled that the state acted reasonably in the June ordering of the shut down of seven different corrections and juvenile justice facilities.
However, the legal clash between Quinn and the AFSCME Council 31 public employees union over the closings continues. The conflict will now stretch past the election and, quite possibly, the Illinois General Assembly’s fall veto session scheduled for late November.
This means uncertainty for some state agencies and public sector workers, along with an exacerbation of the tension between Quinn and AFSCME, as the two sides also wrangle over pensions and hash out a new contract. “It looks like the relationship will keep getting worse before it gets better,” says Robert Bruno, director of the University of Illinois-Chicago’s labor studies department.
AFSCME sued the state in July for the facility closings, shut downs that Quinn assistant budget director Abdon Pallasch says will save $100 million annually from the state budget.
The union, which represents corrections and juvenile justice employees, contends that the Quinn administration did not properly bargain over the closing’s impact.
AFSCME also alleges that the state has put employees in danger. Closing Tamms supermax prison puts the state’s most dangerous inmates in less safe maximum security facilities, the union contends. And the mothballing of other facilities, such as the women’s prison in Dwight, will dangerously increase prison overcrowding, says the union.
On August 31, Arbitrator Steve Biereg sided with AFSCME, finding that Quinn did not properly bargain over the terms of the closings. But Biereg’s latest ruling points out that the two sides subsequently met six times and an “endpoint has been reached” regarding what can be solved at the bargaining table.
Biereg’s ruling then came down to the health and safety of prison guards and other AFSCME employees. The arbitrator determined that the state has acted “reasonably” to prevent a “clear and present danger” in employee safety. Biereg noted Quinn’s planned reallocating of staff and refitting of facilities.
Bolstered by the ruling, Quinn has asked a Cook County judge to lift an injunction that is keeping the prisons open.
AFSCME, meanwhile, wants an Alexander County judge to hold firm on the injunction and also resubmit the case to Biereg. According to AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall, the arbitrator “wrongly decided” what constitutes employee danger.
There is perhaps gamesmanship from each side in where the respective legal requests were filed.
Alexander County is the home of Tamms, and the Tamms prison is a key part of the rural area’s economy. Alexander County Circuit Court Judge Charles Cavaness issued the injunction and has sided with AFSCME each step of the way.
Meanwhile, unlike some rural Illinois counties, the Cook County economy is minimally impacted by the facility closings.
Pallasch points out that the state could file its motion to dismiss the injunction anywhere in the Land of Lincoln. “The impact is all over the state,” Pallasch says. Quinn’s budget spokesman notes that the Illinois Supreme Court could also take up the case.
Quinn told the Chicago Tribune in June that he closed the prisons down in order to route money toward the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services without increasing the overall state budget. Anticipating additional money, DCFS called off the planned layoffs of almost 300 employees (who also happen to be represented by AFSCME).
The Illinois General Assembly, though, must approve this transfer of money. The body meets for a two-week fall veto session in November and then recesses until January.
Kent Redfield, professor of political science at the University of Illinois-Springfield, anticipates that the General Assembly will eventually re-route the money “if the result of the election is that the Democrats continue to have strong majorities in both chambers.”
Democrats who are against the facility closings because they happened in their district might show less fervent opposition if re-elected, Redfield says. For example, Sen. Gary Forby (D-Benton) represents Tamms and has campaigned on his opposition to the governor’s facility closings.
But the litigation could drag on, undermining Quinn’s policy agenda and perhaps severing his relationship with organized labor. “Quinn does not get [Democratic Party] re-nomination two years from now without union support,” Redfield predicts.