THOMSON, Ill. — It's been a year since the Obama administration moved to have the federal government buy the Thomson Correctional Center, but budget and debt talks in Washington, D.C., still stand in the way of opening the vacant facility and creating 1,100 jobs, officials said here Thursday.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., met with village officials and others to answer questions about the project. But the answer that could not be given, at least not now, is whether a budget deal will be struck that will include money for opening the prison.
In addition to getting Congress to approve the project, just getting a budget itself is an uncertainty. The House and Senate have differing spending targets.
Durbin said he thinks there will be a budget, but it's not clear when it might come.
Lawmakers are expected to pass a short-term stopgap measure when they return this month from their August recess.
That would keep the government running past the end of the month, but it would not trigger a Thomson opening. That would require a new budget.
Congress also must act by mid-October to raise the debt ceiling.
How all that fits together is uncertain.
"I think it's going to be very challenging," Durbin said.
The meeting at a school here drew a good-sized crowd. The people in the Carroll County village have been waiting in vain for years to see the prison open.
And yet Mayor Vicki Trager said she is optimistic.
"Of course. What else can I be? I have to be optimistic," she said.
As for the uncertainty in Washington, she said that after years of state budget difficulties standing in the way of getting the prison open, this is not that much different.
"We're no stranger to politics and discord and issues with the budget," she said.
The federal government has completed purchase of the prison, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons has been in contact with local officials.
A representative from the Federal Bureau of Prisons also was at the meeting.
Bill Dalius, the assistant director for administration at the agency, said the bureau is prepared to "move quickly" to hire personnel and get ready for Thomson's opening once money is appropriated.
He said the plan is to hire 300 people in the 2014 fiscal year, with the rest in 2015. Inmates would begin arriving during the summer and fall months of 2015.
An added hurdle continues to be opposition to the project in Congress, principally from a key Virginia lawmaker.
Bustos said she has asked Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., to help set up a meeting with Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who has been a persistent critic of the project. Even if a meeting does not happen, Bustos said she would seek Wolf out herself in order to make the argument for opening the prison.