Thursday, March 30, 2006

GOP partially blames IDOT audit for slamming the brakes on governor's road plan

Road blocks, pot holes or detours: Pick any comparison you’d like, but Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s plan to pay for new construction projects is on a bumpier road than a school bus with a flat tire. That’s left GOP lawmakers thinking they’ve gained some leverage in finalizing a budget that needs a handful of Republican votes to pass. The Senate Republicans highlighted the ironic convergence of a harsh audit of the Illinois Department of Transportation and the reappointment of that agency’s director, Timothy Martin.

This comes in the closing weeks of spring session, when one of the lawmakers’ last major tasks is to agree on how to pay for new construction of roads, bridges and schools. But Republicans and even some Democrats are acting as though their hands are tied because election-year politics have sparked mistrust of the governor's administration.

The Senate addressed Martin’s delayed confirmation this week shortly after the IDOT audit was released. The report listed more than 20 problems with agency contracts, particularly hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable spending on publicity for a Chicago expressway project.

Before the Senate officially confirmed Martin for reappointment, Republicans questioned whether they could approve another cabinet member who will be involved in ongoing federal investigations of Blagojevich’s administration.

“A wounded secretary of transportation and IDOT really hinders the trust that is needed by the governor and the General Assembly to approve a capital plan," said Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican. He added even though Martin was not the one who signed the contracts detailed in the audit, the buck still stops with the secretary of transportation. "And if he’s going to continue to be the secretary of transportation, he better get a better hold on the management of one of the largest and one of the most important agencies of state government, the Illinois Department of Transportation, especially, before we hand he and Gov. Rod Blagojevich another multibillion dollars (worth) of road money.”

Dillard flip-flopped within a few hours, voting to reaffirm Martin in committee and then joining the nay-sayers when the final vote came to the floor.

Meanwhile, Martin had been called by the Senate Republicans to come to the Statehouse. He obliged and was questioned by the caucus and then by reporters.

“I asked them to read the whole report," Martin said. "And we will be sitting before them in the Legislative Audit Commission. If you look at the findings, recommendations and the status - again reading the entire report -– you will see that IDOT has made some significant structural changes since the audit was done and completed, and we were doing it while the audit was ongoing."

He said his meeting with Republicans did not predict the fate of the governor’s capital plan. The General Assembly’s schedule, on the other hand, might give more of a hint: The Senate canceled session Friday through Monday, returning Tuesday. The House will return Monday afternoon. It doesn’t look like the rank-and-file lawmakers are scrambling to agree on a capital budget, after all.

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