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Funding for Thomson prison clears House hurdle

Illinois lawmakers thwart effort to derail opening

The House early Friday morning passed an appropriations bill that includes funding for the Thomson Correctional Center, despite a last-ditch effort by two legislators to sabotage the opening of the prison.

The House passed the Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill about 12:15 a.m. Friday after first thwarting an amendment introduced by Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn that specifically called for denying operational funds for the long-dormant prison.

Blackburn and Virginia Republican Frank Wolf have been staunch opponents of closing Guantanamo Bay, fearing that detainees will be brought to U.S. prisons.

In her speech introducing the amendment on the House floor, Blackburn said that even though it is in writing that federal funds can’t be used to transport Guantanamo detainees to U.S. prisons, the Obama administration has found “pots of money” to circumvent protections.

“Thomson Correctional Center is ground zero in this debate,” Blackburn said. “My amendment would allow no funds for operations, renovation or construction of the prison. As long as it remains operational, we run the risk of seeing Guantanamo detainees on American soil.”

Wolf then took the floor in support of the Blackburn amendment, but it was shot down by a vote of 148-253.

Seventeenth District Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, spoke in opposition to the attempt to derail the prison’s opening. She said the entire Illinois delegation banded together against the amendment.

“This was a ridiculously misguided attempt to continue a game of politics that risks not only the economy of our region, but the lives of federal corrections officers,” said Bustos, who represents Whiteside and Carroll counties.

The prison is expected to bring 1,100 jobs when fully operational.

Bustos’ office said it was surprised by what it called “a desperate attempt” to deny the $53.7 million in funding earmarked for the prison’s opening by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons in March.

“We learned about it just yesterday,” a Bustos spokesperson said Friday. “We were happy that only two Democrats voted for the amendment, and we received bipartisan support from all of the Illinois legislators.”

The CJS spending bill now moves to the Senate, where Thomson has the support of appropriations committee member Sen. Dick Durbin and GOP Sen. Mark Kirk.

Thomson Village President Vicky Trager said she spoke to Bustos Friday morning about the developments in the House.

“I told her that after our previous experiences with the prison funding, we need to know this is good news,” Trager said. “The end result proves the support is there, and we were told there shouldn’t be any further obstructions along the way.”

Trager said preparations for the opening continue to move ahead, with the posting of new jobs and approval of worker transfers. Many of the jobs are to fill out executive and management-level staff.

Then it is on to the construction upgrades, which Trager says have been difficult to pinpoint.

“We’ve had conflicting reports on timelines,” Trager said. “Originally it was 12 to 18 months, and then later they seemed to indicate it wouldn’t take that long. People have been very close-mouthed about some of these things.”

The tiny town has done as much as it can to maximize the benefits of the prison within the confines of its limited resources, Trager said. She said it is primarily targeting goods and services.

“We’re a town of 500,” Trager said. “We’re obviously not going to house 1,100 workers, so we’re looking more at the goods and services aspect. We are doing what we can to promote local businesses, but we can’t expect everything to happen immediately; we’re spread pretty thin.”

The village is hoping to set up a TIF district within the town’s corporate limits to help spur some development.

Despite the fact the prison was built between 1999 and 2001, Trager says surrounding infrastructure still looks good.

“The roads around the prison are still in good shape, and we have a 2-year-old wastewater facility that’s only being utilized at 25 percent.”

The village will launch a website Tuesday to help with worker relocation.

Betty Steinert, Whiteside County economic development administrator, said that once construction begins, it will be a boon to the region.

“It will take a while to get the buildings and grounds up to standards, so there should be a lot of regional contractors infusing some growth into the economy,” she said.

Once the funding is finalized, things will start moving at a much more rapid pace, Steinert said.

“Everybody has just been afraid to put too much money into anything tied to the prison given its history,” Steinert said. “People have already lost money on projects, so they are waiting with everything from advertising to housing development.”

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