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Doors light a fire of protest

Quinn’s foes try to milk it for advantage

Call it a perfect storm for political opportunism.

An upcoming election year and nearly $52 million spent on Capitol renovations, including hundreds of thousands on decorative touches.

Put the ball on the tee and swing away.

People have taken shots at the project since State Journal-Register columnist Dave Bakke was the first to report that the copper-clad doors on the Capitol’s west side entrance cost $670,000. Last week, though, the complaints hit a new crescendo.

Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, who [at the time was] running against Gov. Pat Quinn [but no longer, as Daley pulled out of the race Tuesday], used the doors as evidence of Quinn’s lack of management skills – among other evidence. He linked the project costs to teacher layoffs and health care cuts, even though the Capitol project money couldn’t be used to avoid either of those.

Of course, Quinn could not let this go unanswered, so he promptly announced there would be no money released for future Capitol renovations, while acknowledging the state would still have to pay for all the work it had already contracted for. Horse gone, close barn door.

Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale, one of four Republicans after Quinn’s job, took the tried and true route of calling for an audit, albeit not a forensic audit that was in vogue with some Republican candidates in 2010. He wants Auditor General William Holland to determine if the Capitol expenditures were “appropriate.”

Well, it was capital money spent on a capital project. Beyond that, it seems a bit like asking Holland to issue an audit on whether it was appropriate for the Illinois State Fair to spend $300,000 on Journey. It was appropriate if you like Journey, and was a waste if you don’t.

The next step is to see how long this issue can be milked for political advantage.

Daley probably shouldn’t be singled out for trying to link the $52 million in Capitol renovations to the state’s financial problems. Pretty much all of the complaints have been along the lines of “at a time the state owes $100 billion to pensions it spends $670,000” blah, blah, blah.

To use the currently popular term, the optics are terrible. No doubt about it. But remember, this is bond money being used for the Capitol, money from bonds that were issued to pay for public works projects. It cannot be used to pay down pension debt or old bills. Securities regulators take a dim view when bonds are issued for one purpose and the proceeds used for something else.

There is a fair argument to be made about what other things the bond money could have been used for instead of decorations at the Capitol. Maybe a couple of more schools could have been built or water plants constructed or a few more miles of roads repaired.

Just don’t buy the argument that all vendors would have their bills paid or pension reform wouldn’t be needed if only the state hadn’t spent money on the Capitol.

QUINN SAID he would block the state from spending money on the next phases of the Capitol renovation. Let’s review.

The project to upgrade Capitol mechanical systems, comply with life safety and disability access laws and, yes, redecorate the place is being done in phases, one wing at a time.

The south wing was finished in early 2007. By the time everything was ready to start work on the west wing, it was the fall of 2011. If history repeats itself, Quinn might well be out of office before the next phase of the project is ready to start.

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