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Tight budget still contains pet projects

Published: Monday, July 7, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT
Funny cars are prepared for a run in September 2013 at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison. The racetrack has received $5 million in capital construction funds since a private owner bought and reopened it in 2012 for NASCAR events and other exhibitions. This year, the park, via a grant to the city of Madison, also will benefit from $500,000 in general revenue funds.

CHICAGO (AP) – The new state budget signed by Gov. Pat Quinn last week left lawmakers from both parties unhappy – but it didn’t leave them empty-handed.

Among expenses in the $35.7 billion spending plan, tucked into a document thousands of pages long, are millions of dollars for pet projects statewide. They range from a new school in House Speaker Michael Madigan’s Chicago district to money to promote a racetrack near St. Louis and funds to begin planning Illinois’ 200th birthday celebration – scheduled for 2018.

The items are part of a 2015 budget that legislators admit doesn’t include enough revenue to cover the state’s regular spending needs. Lawmakers defend the extras, saying they were for projects already in the works or badly needed for job creation and other purposes.

Quinn, Madigan and other top Democrats wanted to extend Illinois’ temporary income tax increase beyond Jan. 1 to avoid “severe” cuts to education and other areas, but rank-and-file Democrats – worried about re-election this fall – wouldn’t support it. The tax issue is likely to resurface after November’s election.

Quinn, facing a stiff re-election challenge this year from Republican Bruce Rauner, made just one change to the budget: He eliminated $250 million for renovations to the state Capitol, saying the state couldn’t afford it. But the logic behind his argument – that doing so could help minimize cuts to vital state services – doesn’t quite hold up, because the money will come from a different source.

Here’s a closer look at what made it into the budget – and what didn’t:

School for Madigan’s district

Chicago Public Schools will get $35 million to build a school in Madigan’s southwest side district. The money, added to the budget bills in the final days of the legislative session, comes from the state’s general revenue fund – dollars typically used for day-to-day operations – rather than from the capital construction budget, which was approved in 2009 and is paid off through bonds.

The Democrat said the school was needed because of severe overcrowding. But it drew sharp criticism from Republicans.

“It’s a pure power play,” GOP Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine said.

Gateway Motorsports Park

The auto racetrack in Madison has received $5 million in capital construction funds since a private owner bought and reopened it in 2012 for NASCAR events and other exhibitions. Dave Roeder, spokesman for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, said the park is a major tourist attraction and “significant” employer.

This year, the park, via a state grant to the city of Madison, also will benefit from $500,000 in general revenue funds. The budget says the money is to come from a tourism promotion fund, but Roeder said the state still needs to confer with Madison officials “to make certain it serves a public purpose.”

Uptown Theater

Democratic Senate President John Cullerton pushed for $10 million in capital construction money to renovate the historic theater, which is located near his Chicago district, saying it could become a centerpiece of a neighborhood in the midst of revitalization.

The 4,300-seat theater was built in 1925 and closed in 1981. The full renovation is estimated at between $50 million and $70 million.

Illinois’ 200th birthday party

Quinn announced in May he was forming a 2018 Illinois Bicentennial Commission of more than 50 volunteers to plan a yearlong celebration of the state’s birthday. Quinn said the events will involve people from around the state and “remind everyone of [Illinois’] rich heritage.” The budget includes $250,000 in general revenue funds for the commission to begin its work.

Capitol renovations

Quinn halted renovations at the Capitol last year after criticism about spending, including $80,000 chandeliers and $670,000 for three sets of copper-plated doors. He used his line item veto last week to remove an additional $250 million for the project, saying such cuts – along with others – “will help minimize the impact of cuts in vital services and maintain our hard-won fiscal gains.”

But the money comes from the capital bill, paid for through bonds, not from money the state uses for everyday operations. Lawmakers say there weren’t any immediate plans for the money anyway.

Lawmakers could vote to override that line-item veto. Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesman, said discussion of that is “premature.”

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