Vote on IDOT move Tuesday; Pontiac prison hearing delayed

Doug Finke and Adriana Colindres

Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s latest call for special sessions is good news for Springfield and bad news for Pontiac.

Because lawmakers will be in Springfield Tuesday for the first of two days of special sessions, the General Assembly’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability plans to vote on the fate of moving the Illinois Department of Transportation’s traffic safety division from Springfield to Harrisburg in southeastern Illinois.

But the mid-afternoon start of the session also means CGFA’s scheduled hearing Tuesday night in Pontiac on closing the prison there will be pushed back to Aug. 20. Lawmakers feared the session in Springfield would not end in time for them to make the trip to Pontiac.

The planned Tuesday vote on the IDOT move will bring an end to CGFA’s role in the controversy. Under state law, the commission must hold a hearing when the state plans to close a facility and then vote on whether it should proceed. CGFA held its public hearing last week.

“I think we need to move forward on it,” said Rep. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, a member of the commission. “These poor people need to make plans for the rest of their lives, too.”

About 150 people work for the traffic safety division. IDOT says none of them will be forced to relocate to Harrisburg. Instead, the governor has promised they will be offered other jobs in Springfield with the same pay and benefits.

IDOT says moving the division will save the state money because it can cancel an expensive lease on the building where traffic safety is housed now, and it also will provide a boost to the economically depressed area around Harrisburg.

Few on the 12-member commission are buying the money-saving argument, though.

Six members said Wednesday that they will vote against the move. They include Poe; Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington; Sen. Christine Radogno, R-Lemont; Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford; Rep. Rich Myers, R-Colchester; and Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley.

Rep. Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg, a temporary appointment to the commission for the IDOT issue, is also opposed.

Three members said they are still studying the issue, and two could not be reached for comment.

“They didn’t make the case for the move or justify it,” Mautino said.

“At this point, I plan to vote ‘no’ unless CGFA turns up information to suggest otherwise,” Myers said. “I think the governor’s reasons for making this move don’t add up.”

“It would be much cheaper to stay in Springfield and move into free (vacant) space,” Syverson said. “Anyone who votes in favor of the move would be doing it just for the governor, not based on anything presented (at the hearing).”

Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, said he hasn’t decided whether to support the move and wishes the commission had more time to study the issue.

“In a perfect world, we’d have much more time to wade into this,” Harmon said. “The problem is we’re dealing with real people’s lives.”

The commission vote is only advisory, and Blagojevich has already said the Harrisburg move is a “done deal.” If the administration proceeds with the move over CGFA’s objection, the result could be a lawsuit.

“I hope the governor will keep with tradition and follow our recommendation,” Syverson said. “If he doesn’t, then there will be a legal challenge.”

Blagojevich also wants to close the prison in Pontiac, which requires CGFA to hold a hearing on that issue and make a recommendation.

Brady said he thinks Blagojevich called Tuesday’s special session just to disrupt that hearing, which some supporters expected to draw a crowd of thousands. He said supporters of keeping the prison in Pontiac “had planned a very organized and professional presentation. People had changed their schedules to be able to be at this hearing.”

Mautino, whose district is close to Pontiac, said he’s been in touch with Pontiac civic leaders and businessmen and doesn’t think a one-week delay will cause problems.

“They are as prepared as they need to be,” Mautino said.

Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Chenoa, has been heavily involved in trying to keep the Pontiac prison open. Changing the hearing date won’t be a logistical problem, he said, but getting word out that the hearing is now Aug. 20 will be the bigger challenge.

“We just need to get everybody to know the new date,” Rutherford said.

Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527. Adriana Colindres can be reached at (217) 782-6292.