Friday, April 03, 2009

Appetizers to a bigger meal

By Bethany Jaeger
Rubber will hit the road, federal stimulus funds will begin to flow and some state operations will get a boost through the rest of the fiscal year. Gov. Pat Quinn signed multiple bills into law that will authorize the spending of about $9 billion. Surrounded by Democratic and Republican leaders, Quinn also enacted pension reforms that are designed to restructure the five public employee pension systems in response to corruption allegations exposed during the federal probe of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The spending plan includes about $3 billion for a mini-capital plan, the first program to escape the halls of gridlock since before Blagojevich took office in 2003.

“It’s been 10 years since we had a capital bill,” said Senate President John Cullerton. “We’ve been in session for only 10 weeks, and we’ve already passed this major bill.”

Yet, the $3 billion plan is being framed as just a start to a larger program, which could include a $25 billion plan potentially financed by tax and fee increases. The funding proposals will face significant challenges in acquiring the number of votes needed to pass by the scheduled adjournment of May 31.

House Speaker Michael Madigan said today’s action set a precedent. “Before we did the spending, we reformed the pension systems. I think that’s how we should do this from now until the end of the session.”

All agreed that the capital bill and the pension revamp are only first steps to more construction plans and government reforms.

During a bill signing ceremony outside of his Statehouse office, Quinn touted the bipartisan cooperation. “The reform, the investment in jobs, the investment in reopening our [sites] and making sure our appropriations are proper.”

Not all 11 state historic sites that were closed by Blagojevich last year will automatically reopen by June 30, according to Dave Blanchette, spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. He said the supplemental spending plan earmarks $800,000 to make payroll and hire seasonal workers to accommodate increased tourism at the 18 sites that are currently open. But he said the agency could not promise the money would stretch far enough to reopen all 11 sites.

“We want to make sure we can make the money go as far as possible, but we also want to get the historic sites with the highest visibility reopened as soon as possible,” he said. High-visibility sites include the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, the Lincoln Log Cabin near Charleston and the Hauberg Indian Museum at Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island, he said.

The decision about which sites will reopen will be made by the directors of the Historic Preservation Agency and the Department of Natural Resources, which Quinn recently ordered to consolidate by July 1.

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