There might be no more politically powerful union in Illinois than the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Want proof? Well, AFSCME brought thousands of its members to Springfield last week for its annual "lobby day," and both state legislative chambers used the opportunity to suck up a whole lot more than they ever would for any other labor organization.

The Republican-controlled Senate didn't miss its chance to look good. The Senate Repubs are trying to deal with a Democrat-drawn legislative district map, so they must at the very least appear to be helping organizations that represent Democrat-leaning constituents. A powerful and active group like AFSCME can mean life or death for some of their members in closely divided or Democratic-leaning Senate districts.

The chamber overwhelmingly approved legislation on AFSCME's lobby day that stops Governor George Ryan from privatizing food services at state prisons. The governor claims privatization could save $16 million next fiscal year.

You might think the party that represents the sort of voters who believe that the government is the problem would eagerly embrace privatization. Wrong.

AFSCME, you see, represents government workers. And government workers don't take kindly to privatization, to say the least.

Plus, a bitter fight over unpaid leave and state-worker layoffs has radicalized AFSCME's membership like almost never before. The governor has tried to split the union by going around its leadership to offer unpaid days off instead of layoffs. But the membership has held tight, and 4,000 showed up in Springfield to show their "solidarity." Many of those people undoubtedly signed up to work precincts while they were in town. Killing the anti-privatization bill would have meant certain opposition from the state-employee union this fall.

It's no mystery, then, why the Senate Republicans decided to throw a public kiss to the union. They had nothing to lose, and plenty to gain.

And who was the bill's Senate sponsor? Why, Senator Carl Hawkinson, of course - Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Ryan's running mate. Hawkinson said the privatization proposal wouldn't save any money, giving himself some conservative cover while simultaneously pleasing the union that contributed a fortune to Democrat Rod Blagojevich's primary campaign.

The Democrat-controlled House used the AFSCME lobby day to do some sucking up of its own.

Representatives unanimously approved AFSCME-backed legislation that allows state employees to opt out of their health-insurance plans.

The union claims the idea could save up to $32 million per year - money that can be used to preserve tons of state jobs.

A few days later, the Senate Republicans bowed deeply to the union again.

The Senate Repubs have been getting hammered by the southern Illinois media because their recent budget proposal goes along with Governor Ryan's plan to close the Vienna state prison. And AFSCME, which represents the prison workers, has made it abundantly clear that a vote to close Vienna could result in big problems this November.

Senate President Pate Philip finally got the message and made a rare political trip to southern Illinois, flying down with the entire region's Republican legislative delegation to hold a press conference announcing that he has changed his mind.

Pate pledged that the Senate would not pass any bill that included a Vienna closure and, in a moment of pure chutzpah, warned the House not to pass a budget that closed the prison - even though Pate was the only legislative leader to support shuttering the facility.

The southern Illinois media has been full of reports about the human impact of shutting down the Vienna prison. And most area newspaper editorial boards have weighed in strongly against the idea. Ratcheting up the heat even further, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Blagojevich promised a few weeks ago that his first act as governor would be to re-open the Vienna facility.

There just aren't many good-paying jobs for average people down yonder, so unemployed prison workers would be in danger of losing everything. Besides, these ain't child-care centers. Communities that agreed to host state prisons took a big risk that the facilities would destroy their quality of life. At least, that's how they feel, and the anger and shock over the Vienna closure runs surprisingly wide and deep throughout the region, not just in the prison's immediate vicinity.

By supporting the closure of one small prison in one tiny town, the Senate Repubs were endangering their political chances in several southern Illinois races, including Mt. Vernon GOP Representative John O. Jones' hugely important campaign to unseat Democrat Senator Bill O'Daniel. Jones was at the press conference with Philip.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).

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