Heated debate marks Senate panel hearing on veterans' home
Before Sen. Thomas Cullerton (D-Villa Park), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, could adjourn a recent hearing involving a 2016 engineering report on the Quincy Veterans' Home, Sens. Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo) and Dale Righter (R-Mattoon) made it clear the short notice for a hearing does not give Democrats the right to judge Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration for not addressing the Legionnaires' outbreak at the facility.
In a heated back and forth with Sens. Michael Hastings (D-Tinley Park) and William Haine (D-Alton), the two GOP and two Democrat senators freely shared their feelings about having no members from the governor’s office showing up for the review of the report on Feb. 20.
The controversial topic of Legionnaires' at the home, which led to Gov. Bruce Rauner staying overnight at the facility and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) demanding something be done over the recurring deaths since the 2013 outbreak, has made media headlines multiple times.
Calling it a “no notice” hearing, Schimpf said that he was disappointed the meeting was even called.
“I think that it is unfortunate that we could call this hearing with the expectation that department heads of agencies for the State of Illinois would be given less than 48 hours’ notice on a holiday weekend on this hearing and are expected to testify,” Schimpf said.
He said, he too, just received the report that morning and while he looks forward to reading it and discussing the engineering report in the future, the last-minute notice “causes the whole process to lose a little bit of credibility.”
However; Haine saw it differently, saying the process had him perplexed two weeks ago when the absent administrative officials had to have known about the report, but no one ever mentioned it to him in a lengthy discussion he had with them over the phone.
“I take issue with the fact that this was a hurried meeting,” Haine said, adding from what he was told was Legionnaires' spread in Quincy through the water piping system. “They have the facts, and they need to make a decision and get it done. People are suffering with this state of affairs and we are spinning around with alternatives that should have been decided years ago.”
He said the Rauner administration should be present in the room with a plan to replace the pipes and several contractors to present the committee with a bill.
Schimpf agreed the committee needs answers, but there was no fair notice given to all witnesses expected to attend.
“I would expect they have other worthwhile events they are attending today,” Schimpf said.
Hastings said though no one from the governor’s office was present, he “hopes someone from the Rauner administration is listening to this. They have had the reports since 2016 and they finally delivered it to this committee Friday at 5 p.m., so this argument about notice is moot,” Hastings said.
Hastings said Rauner has $240 million in unappropriated contracts with the Department of Corrections, but when it comes down to $6 million, a mere fraction of the $240 million that was unappropriated, shows abandon.
“This is an example of negligence, an example of failed leadership, and it is a sad state-of-affairs when 13; not one, not two, not three, not four and not five, but 13 people had to die,” Hastings said.
After Hastings said that the Rauner administration is letting people die on its watch, Righter said “cool water” should be put on the discussion. He, like Schmipf, said the committee should not judge absent members, even noting they could in fact be absent because they are working on the Legionnaires' issue.
“My guess is that they are not, and that they are avoiding coming here because they know they are going to be subject to criticism,” Haine said. “And they have been ordered by the governor not to show up.”
Righter called the hearing a Democratic press conference at the end of the 20-minute debate. No new meeting was announced.