CHICAGO – Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is pressing lawmakers to move swiftly on three pieces of legislation that would pave the way to rebuild a veterans’ home plagued by deadly outbreaks of Legionnaire’s disease.
The legislation would allow the state to “get started on the work to build a brand new world-class facility,” with completely new water plumbing, for veterans at the state’s facility in Quincy, Rauner said at a news conference this week announcing a $3 million Illinois Environmental Protection Grant for the city of Quincy to access a new groundwater source.
“Get those three bills passed,” he said.
With the regular session set to close at the end of May, the key Senate Bill 3611 would provide $16 million for water quality improvements at the site and other emergency measures and a $230 million capital appropriation for a new building.
A second bill would free up federal funds for the project and a third would speed the building process by allowing the state to use a design-build model.
The latter two bills have cleared the Senate and are pending before House committees. The capital appropriation however was only just introduced on Wednesday and it carries an effective date of July 1. The near term plan is to move residents to a nearby vacant nursing home.
Construction of a new home has strong bipartisan support but some Democrats have said they are hesitant to give the governor a blank check without oversight and with the clock ticking on the current session there may not be time to reach a compromise.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said his caucus wants to move ahead and blamed Rauner for the lack of progress.
“Concerns and questions raised by our caucus remain unaddressed by the administration, but need to be resolved in order for us all to make the best decisions on behalf of our veterans and their families," Madigan said in a statement Friday, accusing Rauner of failing to act on a long-term solution for three years. "We must now work together to correct these failings and protect our veterans through the careful, considerate process that should have been this administration’s policy all along.”
The Rauner administration has been under fire for its handling of the outbreaks and its slow notification of the public, residents, and employees prompted lawmakers last week to pass a bill that requires such notification within 24 hours when multiple cases are diagnosed.
The crisis has also provided fodder for the governor’s race with Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker accusing the administration of poor management dealing with the outbreaks. He supports construction of a new home but says Rauner has given lawmakers too little time to consider it.
Outbreaks since 2015 have contributed to 13 deaths of residents who were sickened by the bacteria that is believed to be harbored in the water system.
The governor’s special task force examining solutions recommended construction of a new residential home with a fresh water plumbing and distribution system and development of an alternative water source. Construction is expected to take four to five years. The plan did not provide a funding source but with a capital appropriation the state could fund the project with borrowing and federal funds.
Rauner has raised the legislation with leaders during meetings this week where discussion over a fiscal 2019 budget is the top priority.
Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said after a Thursday meeting that discussions on Rauner’s full capital budget are part of the discussion and the Quincy legislation has been added to the talks.
“Quincy is obviously very important but we also need to be able to pass a budget so that people who work in Quincy can get paid,” Cullerton said, adding that the bipartisan budget working groups are “making progress on narrowing the gap” on spending and revenues but they “don’t have an agreement on narrowing that gap yet.”
State capital spending has dried up for local governments, transportation agencies, and some state projects as a 2009 $31 billion capital program known as Illinois Jobs Now is expiring. Bipartisan support for a new plan has been hampered by a lack of agreement on a new funding source to repay borrowing.
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Updated May 18, 2018 at 11:04AM: The story was updated with a statement from the Illinois House speaker.