Peoria Journal Star

Friday, September 16, 2005

Bush signs off on base closures
Lawsuit still seeks to block changes recommended for Illinois bases

By Otto Kreisher
OF Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - President Bush removed virtually all doubt that the most aggressive bout of base closure and realignment in history will take affect, announcing Thursday his approval of the recommendations of the independent commission that reviewed and modified Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's proposals.

Acting eight days before his Sept. 23 deadline, Bush forwarded the commission's report to Congress, which is considered unlikely to be able to block its execution. The lawmakers can only stop the lengthy list of recommendations if both chambers pass resolutions of disapproval. That never happened in the four previous BRAC rounds.

The only remaining doubt that the reductions in military facilities will proceed stems from the lawsuits filed by at least six governors - including Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich - who claim that the military does not have the authority to eliminate or change National Guard units without their permission.

Blagojevich is protesting the proposal to move 15 F-16s of the Illinois Air National Guard's 183rd Fighter Wing from the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield to Fort Wayne, Ind., taking 163 military and civilian jobs.

But all of those lawsuits were rejected by the first federal courts that heard the claims or overturned later by U.S. appeals courts.

Blagojevich said he hoped Congress "makes the right decision and rejects the BRAC recommendations because it does not live up to all its hype."

"Taking the F-16s out of Springfield is the perfect example of what is wrong with this process. It would cost, and not save, the taxpayers $10 million, and it would make our country less and not more secure, in addition to being illegal."

Blagojevich said the state was prepared to go back to court "because our case is solid, our facts are indisputable and we will hopefully prevail."

Although some of the other governors also have vowed to appeal their cases up through the federal court system, the Justice Department and independent legal experts have determined that the law creating the BRAC process supercedes the older federal statutes the governors cite. Some of the previous closure rounds also closed or moved Guard units.

When the BRAC commission sent its recommendations to Bush, it noted that a provision affecting a Connecticut Air Guard unit had been blocked by a U.S. circuit court judge. But Bush said he was approving that move because the injunction had been stayed by an appeals court.

The modified proposals approved by Bush would close 22 major bases and reduce the activities at 33 other large facilities. They also would eliminate or change nearly 800 small military installations across the nation, including hundreds of Army, Navy and Marine Corps Reserve and National Guard centers.

The infrastructure modifications would result in the movement of tens of thousands of military personnel and civilian defense employees, but would eliminate fewer than 28,000 total positions. That is about 1 percent of the Pentagon's total work force.

The changes could start next year and must be completed in six years. The Pentagon estimated that once the reductions and realignments are completed, the modified recommendations would result in annual savings of $4.2 billion. That is more than the estimated annual savings of the four previous closure rounds combined - but less than the $5.4 billion expected from Rumsfeld's recommendations, which would have closed 33 and realigned 29 major bases.

The commissioners refused to close several large installations, motivated largely by the considerable economic pain the closure would have caused in the communities around the facilities.

Bush's approval, conveyed in a short letter to the leaders of the House and Senate, is the next to the last step in a process that began more than two years ago when the military services began reviewing all of their installations. Rumsfeld sent a massive list of base actions to the nine-member commission April 13.

After a demanding schedule of public hearings and base visits, the panel sent its report to Bush Sept. 8, as required.

Congress now has 45 legislative days to act, which could extend the review period into November.