Christmas at the Capitol

Beware of lawmakers bearing gifts

Reading through the recently approved state capital plan is a bit like going on a 362-page Easter egg hunt.

Roof repairs. Window replacement. Wastewater infrastructure improvements. Road construction. Creation of endangered bumblebee habitat.

Huh?


Well, bees are important, as are birds, which is why lawmakers from both parties set aside $200,000 for the former and $335,000 for the latter in the $45 billion capital spending blueprint approved in the closing hours of the legislative session. The Forest Preserve District of Kane County will use the money to remove honeysuckle and other invasive species from migratory bird habitat while planting bee balm and other vegetation rich in pollen and nectar to sustain the endangered rusty patched bumblebee.

Fido is a winner, too, in the spending plan that includes $400,000 for at least five dog parks. Then there’s Good Beauty Chicago, which was awarded $100,000 for infrastructure improvements. There is no state agency called Good Beauty Chicago, nor is there a nonprofit by that name in Illinois, but there is a Good Beauty Chicago hair and nail salon. It’s housed in a building owned by a real-estate investor who’s contributed nearly $80,000 to various politicians over the years. The salon owner didn’t return a call.

The National Museum of Gospel Music in Chicago, which exists only on paper, won $300,000. Nearly $670,000 would go to a half-dozen churches. There’s also money for VFW and American Legion posts. The Evanston History Center is down for $270,000 to refurbish wooden doors and a stone entryway. Like Ed McMahon, I broke the good news to Jill Kirk, the center’s development director. “Pinch me,” she exclaimed.

In just two weeks, a spending plan unveiled by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in mid-May swelled by $3.5 billion before legislators called it good and voted. In Springfield, the plan includes more than $500 million for the Capitol complex, including $122 million to revive the shuttered armory, $30 million to overhaul an antiquated steam distribution system that provides heat and $350 million for other projects that aren’t specified in the bill. Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, said some of the money will be spent on Statehouse renovations but a lot of it might not be spent at all – projects aren’t done deals simply because they’re in a capital bill. No use has been established for the armory if and when it’s fixed up, and Manar says he wants to see a plan for the entire campus before spending hundreds of millions of dollars. Past dreams have included leveling the Stratton building. Perhaps displaced workers could set up shop in a renovated armory.


Springfield won $122 million to help relocate railroad tracks from the Third Street corridor to Tenth Street, which was the city’s top priority. On the other hand, lawmakers approved not a penny for improvements to MacArthur Boulevard, a $20 million ask. Meanwhile, University of Illinois Springfield got $35 million for a new library. Ward 3 landed $500,000 for projects to be named later – it is the only ward out of 32 mentioned in the spending plan that isn’t in Chicago. Calling the recently concluded session “epic,” Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner says her ward has plenty of bad roads and flooding. “No dog parks,” she vowed. Lawmakers also authorized $400,000 to improve Adloff Lane, also in Turner’s ward, as well as $300,000 for “costs associated with job development” on the east side. Mayor Jim Langfelder said he hasn’t settled on how to spend the job development money, but partnering with a nonprofit to fix up housing or demolish lost causes is a possibility.

All of this bipartisan largesse skirts an essential truth: Illinois is broke, and the governor is betting on the come that voters next year will approve a constitutional amendment and institute a graduated income tax, which rhymes with “tax hike.”

“You shouldn’t start ordering furniture for the new library at UIS,” says Kent “Party Pooper” Redfield, a retired UIS political science professor. “This is still a bridge to a massive tax increase so we can actually make progress on unpaid bills and pensions and sustain all the increased spending we’ve committed to doing.”

Roads and bridges have the best shot because they’d be funded by bonds supported by gas taxes, which will double to 38 cents per gallon, Redfield said. But whether dogs frolic in new digs and whether libraries and museums will get built likely depends on how much we smoke and gamble and drink – taxes on all three endeavors are going up – and otherwise turn over to the state more than we are turning over now.

“This is definitely huge,” Redfield says. “This may not all be real.”


I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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