Former Gov. Jim Edgar had to lead Illinois through difficult budget times, and he thinks the current governor's budget-cutting methods leave something to be desired.
"It was kind of an incomplete budget message," Edgar said of Quinn's gloomy address Wednesday, which included specifics on dozens of facility closings but left even bigger spending cuts to pensions and Medicaid up to working groups.
"I would say that my first reaction to the speech was that the good news was it was very short. The second was that there wasn't much in it and that's why it was short. I just didn't see any details. You leave out Medicaid and pensions and say you're going to balance the budget, I don't know how you do that."
Edgar, who was governor from 1991 to 1999, said the governor must lead.
"I always thought that when I was governor I had to say where we were going to cut it instead of saying to the Legislature, 'It's your job to go cut it,'" he said.
And while he supported the notion of closing state facilities, Edgar said he was concerned about Quinn's plan to shut down the "supermax" prison at Tamms in southern Illinois. Tamms, which has a population of about 390 but a staff of 300, was built and opened during Edgar's tenure.
"I don't have a real problem with closing facilities," said Edgar. "The one I would question is Tamms, because Tamms is not just another prison. It's the supermax prison where you put all the really bad inmates. Not the one who committed the most atrocious crimes but the ones who act the worst in the prisons, who cause all the problems in the prisons and cause them to be on lockdown, problems that can lead to riots."
Edgar said Tamms helped to keep peace in all of the other correctional centers.
"My experience was it helped a lot to keep the rest of the prisons, which were always overcrowded and are going to be even more overcrowded now, it kept them more peaceful because you took the really bad actors out and put them in Tamms. And then the others who might be bad actors didn't want to go to Tamms. They kinda got religion and they behaved better," said Edgar, now a distinguished fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.
"All the feedback I got after we built Tamms and opened it was that it worked," he said. "It costs a lot more to keep an inmate at Tamms because you've got a lot more security on them ($64,116 per inmate per year according to the Department of Corrections, versus the statewide average of $21,405 per inmate), but the question is if you bring those folks back into the regular prisons, do you all of a sudden have more potential problems in those other prisons?"
Edgar said the Quinn administration "should be very careful" about closing Tamms.
"The thing I worried about the most when I became governor was having a prison riot. I had watched what happened to (New York Gov. Nelson) Rockefeller and I watched those prison riots and I did not want to have to deal with one of those. The day I left the governor's office, there were a lot of things I was relieved about, and one of them was I didn't have to worry about a prison riot any more."
Edgar also questioned Quinn's policy of cutting the budget everywhere but in education. Quinn proposed giving $20 million more to early childhood and $50 million more to the Monetary Award Program college scholarships.
"I don't know how you can give more to education. I don't see that. You may not cut education like you cut Medicaid, but I think you've got to say to everybody that we've got a problem and everybody's going to have to take some of this pain," Edgar said.
He also said he believes Quinn should have pushed for budget cuts at the same time he promoted the 67 percent income tax increase enacted last year.
"Raising taxes is probably the easiest part of this whole thing," he said. "The cutting of spending is going to be more brutal, which is something they should have done when they raised the taxes (in January 2011). They should have done them together.
"They've also got to stop creating new programs and spending more money. They're going to have to stay on a diet for several more years. That's just not in their nature. I know how much trouble I had in the '90s, trying to hold the line on the Legislature. They couldn't wait for me to get out of there."
This story appeared in print on Feb. 24.