Illinois Prison System's Budget, A 'Five-Alarm Fire'

Apr 12, 2018

The Illinois Department of Corrections says a major cash crunch has it struggling to keep its facilities running.

The warning came Wednesday at a Senate budget hearing. But some Democratic lawmakers say that was the first time they were hearing the situation was so dire.

On a summer day in 2016, state prison officials were on the brink of a crisis at Western Illinois Correctional Center.

It was the height of the budget impasse. John Baldwin, director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, says the city-owned utility in Mt. Sterling was hours away from shutting off the water.

“We had buses in the parking lot ready to haul 1,500 offenders away to other institutions,” he said.

Although it was owed hundreds of thousands of dollars, Mt. Sterling’s City Council decided not to shut off the water. The department has since paid off some of those bills, though a city official says the department is still behind on payments.

The incident and the ongoing debt show how Illinois’ two-year budget stalemate continues to cause problems in state government.

Baldwin says IDOC has had to continue negotiating with vendors, and needs more than $400 million before the end of the budget year this June.

“The supplemental is needed because of obligations that we have had to expend to keep our operation running during the budget struggles,” Baldwin told lawmakers.

The request comes as lawmakers are focusing on next year’s budget, and senators chided Baldwin for not conveying the urgency of his request earlier than this week’s budget hearing.

“I would describe the nature of the requests that the department has for an (fiscal year 2018) supplemental as a five-alarm fire,” said state Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill. “At best you're treating it as a garden variety request. You're treating it as if it's a 'ho-hum' scenario for the department, at least from my perspective.”

Baldwin didn’t respond directly to the criticism, but said his staff has been “magnificent” at keeping the department going. To manage cash flow, they’ve had to cut back on things toilet paper and cleaning supplies.

Manar told Baldwin he’d heard about the toilet paper — but not from him, which he says is part of the problem.

“I've heard more from the inmates about the need for supplemental than I have from both of you sitting at this table,” Manar said.

But state Sen. Dale Righter, a Republican from Mattoon, says Democrats have been aware of the budget problems in the prisons.

“The bill that is necessary to appropriate the money for DOC has been on file. The bottom line is the Democratic majority hasn’t moved it,” Righter said.

Gov. Bruce Rauner did call for extra money for the department in his February budget proposal, and his budget staff mentioned it at a Senate hearing earlier this year.

But Committee Chair Heather Steans says they masked the severity of the problem with bureaucratic language.

“My recollection is he was using words like ‘unappropriated liabilities’,” she said. “It does not give you the nature of what the problem is. It just doesn't.”

The budget problems in the state-run prison system are costing taxpayers more and more money. It is racking up around $4 million in late-payment penalties every month, the department’s finance chief told the committee. Without more money, and soon, those penalties could add up to $78 million by the end of the fiscal year, he said.

When Steans inquired if IDOC could continue operations until the end of May, when supplemental appropriations like the one the department is seeking are typically passed, Baldwin said no.

Rauner has called for a meeting with legislative leaders. Steans says she hopes money for IDOC is at the top of their agenda.