Regional News

Quinn: Projects At Risk

CHICAGO — Calling for a special legislative session, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday warned that the General Assembly’s failure to authorize a capital spending bill before adjourning last week jeopardizes billions of dollars in construction projects.

The warning came nearly one week after lawmakers adjourned their spring session, during which they approved a $33.2 billion operating budget and a massive expansion of gambling while leaving a bill that reappropriates spending for already approved projects on the table.

Inaction on the capital bill followed the Senate’s decision to tack on about $430 million more in spending. The House did not take up the additions ­before ­adjourning. Democrats control both chambers.

Quinn, also a Democrat, said the General Assembly’s failure to enact HB 2189 authorizing the state to fund previously approved projects puts federal matching funds at risk and could force the suspension or cancellation after June 17 of thousands of projects, impacting 52,000 jobs.

“This issue … is crucial to the economic recovery of Illinois. We must get this done,” Quinn said at a news conference Monday. “This is something that has to be done. It’s not a matter that is optional. It’s mandatory.”

The governor said lawmakers should return for a special session, but he intends to talk to leaders to decide on a date and course of action.

Without an authorization in place, the Illinois Department of Transportation could not accept or disburse local, state and federal funds on $16.6 billion worth of pending projects. The suspension would force a freeze on $652 million of new projects and engineering contracts totaling $500 million.

The Capital Development Board would have to suspend $1.7 billion worth of projects. More than 170 clean water and wastewater improvements projects would be halted. Some of the projects that would be affected include a new Mississippi River bridge near St. Louis, high-speed rail construction, bridge projects in Chicago and new facilities at state universities.

Some Republicans and construction groups countered that Quinn’s warning was extreme and that the state could legally continue to pay for projects for some period into the new fiscal year. 

Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who pays the state’s bills and contracts, issued a statement saying she had asked for a legal review of the matter and called on lawmakers to act.

“My message to fellow state leaders is simple: do not play games with capital projects and the jobs they bring to Illinois. It is one thing to limit state spending on construction, but quite another to stop payment on projects already underway,” she said.

The possible suspension of projects is tied to the need for an appropriation to continue funding the projects and not to an ongoing legal challenge over the state’s $31 billion public works program that could impact future projects.

The Illinois attorney general’s office and lawyers for a liquor distributor recently squared off before the state Supreme Court over whether the 2009 program — and the funding streams approved to repay bonding for it — are legal.

The appellate court earlier this year struck down provisions of the capital package that established funding streams to fund projects and repay bonding, ruling that they violated the state’s single-subject clause.

Wirtz Beverage Illinois LLC filed the lawsuit in August 2009 shortly after Quinn signed the law. Wirtz’s suit also challenged the state’s move to enact a higher tax on spirits and wine than on beer to support the capital budget.

Illinois plans to sell between $2 billion and $3 billion of general obligation bonds this year pending resolution of the legal case.

If the court affirms the appellate ruling, the General Assembly would need to rewrite legislation for the 2009 capital plan and its funding streams.

While Quinn called the capital bill an urgent matter, it’s not the only issue that could demand further attention by lawmakers over the summer. The governor also called work on the operating budget incomplete because he wants more spending on education.

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, agrees with Quinn, a spokeswoman said.

“Our work is not done and the legislature should return to Springfield shortly,” Cullerton said. “The budget isn’t complete until we address funding for education and human services. If the other caucuses have an alternate way to address both the insufficient operations budget and the capital bill appropriation, we would entertain those conversations.” 

Quinn also will press lawmakers to support some form of borrowing to pay down a backlog of $8 billion in bills. The fiscal 2012 budget approved by ­lawmakers leaves those bills unpaid. Lawmakers have rejected several borrowing plans.



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