Thursday, February 26, 2009

Parks reopen, special election debate rekindles, Scully resigns

By Jamey Dunn and Bethany Jaeger
Gov. Pat Quinn announced the reopening of seven state parks today, although they’re not yet fully staffed. And Quinn said that he will soon make an announcement about reopening closed historic sites.

As of this morning, Castle Rock State Park and Lowden State Park in Oregon, Illini State Park in Marseilles, Hidden Springs State Forest in Strasburg, Moraine View State Park in Leroy, Weldon Springs State Park in Clinton and Wolf Creek State Park in Windsor are all open to visitors.

According to Marc Miller, Head of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, it will take $1.1 million to keep these parks open for the rest of the fiscal year. He said that the department would pay for the reopening of the parks by tapping into special dedicated funds as part of a plan approved by the General Assembly in October. He said the agency won’t need to take funding from any other state operations.

Quinn said state parks generate an estimated $500 million in tourism dollars that “far outweigh” the money spent on keeping them open. Miller said more than 43 million people go to Illinois state parks every year, with 230,000 visiting the seven state parks last year before they were closed.

“We’ve got to get our economy out of the ditch. Part of doing that is making sure our parks are open,” Quinn said.

Quinn called the move both a public health and economic initiative targeted at getting people to exercise outdoors and to help create jobs by spurring local economies. He called upon Illinoisans to “pack our parks” as a frugal vacation option.

Special election update
While Republicans used Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s opinion as support for their wish to call for a special election to replace U.S. Sen. Roland Burris — regardless of whether he’s still in office — House and Senate Democrats are floating their own plans about calling special elections to fill vacancies. However, none are agreed upon bills.

Senate Democrats held two special election proposals and assigned them to subcommittees, which have served as legislative graveyards in the past. Executive Committee Chairman Ira Silverstein said they are to be working committees intended to give more time to debate such controversial measures.

Republican Sen. Matt Murphy, the Palatine Republican sponsoring one measure kicked out to subcommittee, said he was disappointed that the bill wasn’t called for debate today but that he doesn’t think it’s dead. “We’ve been embarrassed at least twice in this process now, and I’m going to continue to try and see that it doesn’t happen again.” We wrote about what the bill would do this morning.

A Democratic version is sponsored by Sen. Rickey Hendon of Chicago, who supports the idea to hold a special election to fill all vacancies, from county commissioners to state and U.S. senators. “People should have a right to vote in every case.”

The last time Hendon sponsored a bill that took such a broad approach was when he expanded the idea of allowing voters to recall elected officials from state legislators to local government officials. That bill died in committee, although Hendon said he did not intend for the special election bill to suffer the same fate.

He also took issue with a House bill, sponsored by Rep. Jack Franks and backed by the governor. “The House bill is another game, in my opinion, because they still just want to concentrate on Roland Burris, Roland Burris.”

Senate President John Cullerton said he’s waiting to see what the House does before the Senate acts. “This is a different, cooperative procedure that we’re geared to this year while we work together with both chambers. So I don’t want to just send messages over to the House without having an idea about what they’re going to do.”

Franks, a Woodstock Democrat, said he is waiting for a meeting with House Speaker Michael Madigan to discuss the status of his two special election bills. “The opinion indicates that it’s in our hands now and we have the power if want to set this election. I’m going to impress upon him the necessity to do so,” Franks said.

Franks said he is worried that if Burris files a lawsuit questioning the legality of holding an election, a long legal battle could ensue that makes the whole issue moot. “We could be stuck in court for months. I’m sure we’d be in court longer then when the next election would be in February of 2010,” he said.

Rep. Lou Lang, an assistant majority leader from Skokie, said the Democratic Caucus is divided on the issue. “This is not about Mr. Burris. It’s about what we do with the laws in the state of Illinois. Rod Blagojevich, as unfortunate as it was, made a legal appointment of Mr. Burris while he was still governor,” he said.

Judge Scully
Democrats and Republicans bid farewell, thank you and good luck to Rep. George Scully, who retired today to serve an appointment to the Cook County circuit court bench.

He was elected in 1996 to represent the south suburban Chicago House District 80. He has since dissected complex regulation and legal issues, including managing the heated and lengthy debate about regulating the electric utility industry after rates skyrocketed in 2005. He also reached out to numerous legislators to help them think through legislation, regardless of whether he agreed with them.

“He would see all sides, and for that, he was a very judicious legislator,” said Rep. Kevin Joyce, a Chicago Democrat and family friend.

A marathon runner, including the Boston Marathon, the “sergeant,” as he was called, often led a group of legislators and political insiders on four-mile runs around Springfield before session days. The nickname refers to his very serious but polite and professional manner in which he conducts himself.

“Tender, laid back, relaxed, easy going, soft. These are not words I would use to describe George Scully,” said Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat, joking before adding that Scully has a “keen mind and a true heart.”

Several Republicans also said their thanks. “I think many of us would like Rep. Scully to stay. He’s going to be a loss to this process, a loss to this chamber,” said Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican.

Scully said he’s leaving the legislature with a confidence in the state’s Constitution. “It has survived tremendous assault, and it came out very strong,” he said of the consecutive corruption allegations staining the state.

He ended by reciting insight he’d received 12 years ago: Trust the voters. People can accept that you disagree with them. They will never accept the fact that they’re being ignored.

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