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Thursday, March 11, 2004 03:46 am

Prison blues

During the 2002 campaign, gubernatorial candidate Rod Blagojevich spoke to a large crowd of union members in Vandalia, most of whom worked at the local state prison. Blagojevich made a pledge to them: If elected governor, "I will never balance the budget on your backs."

Fast-forward to February 2004. Gov. Rod Blagojevich proposes closing the very same Vandalia prison and laying off the hundreds of workers whom he swore to protect. To say that the prison workers feel double-crossed would be putting it mildly.

For years, Department of Corrections employees have been reliable Republican voters. Many of the old-timers obtained their jobs through Republican political connections, and many of the downstate prisons were built in Republican areas.

But a solid year of deep budget cuts and layoffs by Gov. George Ryan had soured many prison workers on the GOP. When Blagojevich came along, many eagerly volunteered to work on his campaign. Jim Ryan, Blagojevich's Republican opponent, refused to rule out more layoffs in the prison system. The choice was pretty easy.

A couple of weeks ago, hundreds of Vandalia prison workers and their friends and relatives traveled to Springfield to protest the proposed prison closure and object to what has to be the single most spectacular flip-flop by this governor. They repeated the trek last week.

The workers appear to have the facts on their side. It costs the state $23,000 per year to house an inmate at the Vandalia Correctional Center (VCC). The brand-new prison in Lawrence County, where the VCC inmates will be moved, has a per-inmate cost of $25,000. Blagojevich claims he can save $30 million by closing the prison, but prison boosters say it will actually cost the state $32 million.

The prison is in Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson's legislative district. The Vandalia Leader Union ran an editorial recently which pointed out that after Watson refused to cooperate with the governor during last year's spring session, Blagojevich fired the Vandalia warden and had him escorted out of the building under police guard. The warden was a personal friend of Watson's.

The governor claimed not long ago that he had no idea that the Vandalia prison was in Watson's district. Lots of people found that statement a bit hard to swallow, including Watson. Plenty of people believe that Blagojevich has proposed closing the prison to either retaliate again for Watson's uncooperative manner, or to force him to the bargaining table and make him put Senate Republican votes on the final budget agreement in exchange for keeping his prison open.

Finding the $30 million to keep Vandalia open won't be easy. The governor's budget proposal woefully underfunds education, and pressure is building to give schools as much as $250 million more. Some of the corporate tax loopholes that he wants to get rid of are proving to be more popular than first assumed, creating another $50 million hole, or thereabouts. If the state workers' union refuses, as expected, to give in to his demand that its members pick up their own pension payments, that will blow another $60 million hole in the budget.

Frank Watson is a stubborn man who isn't easily intimidated. Last year, he refused to offer any suggestions during the budget negotiations, and did his best to keep his members from voting for the final product.

But if Watson wants to keep his prison open, he may have no choice but to cooperate this year. The governor's budget is so full of holes that patching just one of them to free up some money for Vandalia won't be enough.

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