Thomson prison funding may fall prey to budget battle


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Originally Posted Online: Sept. 05, 2013, 2:36 pm
Last Updated: Sept. 05, 2013, 6:23 pm
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By Eric Timmons, etimmons@qconline.com

THOMSON -- The prison bought by the federal government for $165 million last year is likely to stay closed if Republicans and Democrats in Congress can't agree on a budget in the fall.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is eager to open Thomson Correctional Center and begin hiring 1,100 staff for the facility but first needs $193 million in activation funding.

Congress must approve the funding and include it in a budget for the new fiscal year that starts October 1. But with another debt ceiling fight looming, funding for the prison could get caught up in the partisan crossfire.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, spoke in Thomson on Thursday to update the community on the project.

"I don't want to mislead you and say it's going to be easy," Sen. Durbin said. "It's going to be difficult."

It's unlikely the House and Senate will agree to a budget before October 1.

A temporary spending plan known as a continuing resolution will be enacted if a budget can't be agreed and Sen. Durbin said that would put the Thomson project "on hold."

The federal government bought the prison from the state of Illinois for $165 million about a year ago. The prison has sat largely empty since it was completed in 2001.

Bill Dalius, the Assistant Director for Administration of the Federal Bureau of Prisons also spoke in Thomson on Thursday. He said that as soon as the first portion of money to open the prison becomes available hiring would begin for 300 positions.

It will take two years to open the prison once funding comes through, with most of the staff hired in the second year, Mr. Dalius said. He expects about half of the workers for the prison will be hired from the local area.

One Republican in the House who has a key position on a committee that approves prison funding has been a long-term opponent of the federal government acquiring Thomson.

Rep. Frank Wolf, D-Va., attempted to block the federal government from buying the prison and could still work to stop the prison from opening.

Rep. Bustos said she has been attempting to get a meeting with Rep. Wolf to talk about the project but has been unsuccessful to date. "If he won't agree to meet me I can always find him on the House floor," she said.

Rep. Wolf's office did not return a call for comment Thursday. Former Republican Congressman Bobby Schilling also had tried to convince Rep. Wolf to support the project but failed to do so.

Rep. Bustos said she's hoping Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Il., can soften Rep. Wolf's opposition to the project.

Sen. Durbin said that now that the federal government owns the prison it will be more difficult for Rep. Wolf to hold up the project, as it would mean leaving a $165 million federal asset empty.

He also hinted that there may be a way around Rep. Wolf's committee to get funding for the prison into the budget.

People in Thomson have grown used to hearing promises from politicians about the prison and weren't taking anything for granted at Thursday's meeting.

The mayor of nearby Savanna said that despite the commitment to the project shown by Sen. Durbin and Rep. Bustos she was not "overly optimistic" about the pace of progress.

"I don't want to say it," said Savanna Mayor Tony McCombie. "But I'll believe it when I see it."






















 




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