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Summer capital projects in Illinois back on track

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 23, 2011 - SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Thwarting a potential shutdown of publicly funded construction projects, Illinois lawmakers sent Gov. Pat Quinn a compromise on the state's fiscal 2012 capital budget.

Legislators met in the Statehouse Wednesday to keep billions of dollars for summer construction projects on schedule.

Both sides of the aisle came to an agreement on capital spending for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. In doing so, the Legislature unanimously approved Senate Bill 2414 to remove spending added to the budget at the end of the regular session in May.

Democrats in the Senate had tacked on the spending, valued at roughly $430 million, just before the chamber passed its version of the capital budget. However the House refused to amend its version to include the Senate's changes.

Because the governor cannot approve or veto a capital budget lacking a consensus from the House and Senate, it appeared as if this year's construction season would be lost after Quinn threatened to postpone the projects unless the two chambers reached a compromise. Following a meeting with Quinn and legislative leaders last week, Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, indicated his caucus would withdraw the additional spending to earn support for the budget from Senate Republicans and the House.

Though the state's General Revenue Fund debt is decreasing, Illinois still faces "a massive bill backlog and substantial long-term challenges remain," Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said in April.

Several lawmakers and public policy analysts have said the state is not taking its debt seriously by not withholding or cutting more spending from the budget. However House Minority Leader Tom Cross said those critics should be more specific in those claims.

"Those who believe the budget should be cut more should belly up to the bar and introduce real cuts in legislative form," he said during a Wednesday House floor debate.

This year's capital budget is part of the $31 billion construction plan Quinn signed into law in 2009. The coming fiscal year's capital budget includes at least $6.6 million for municipalities and townships in Madison and St. Clair counties to spend on road and infrastructure improvements.

A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Transportation said the agency does not foresee any delays because of the past month's legislative quarrels.

Additionally, the East St. Louis School District 189 and Troy Community Consolidated Unit School District 30C should receive $29 million and $500,000, respectively.

Fire departments in Maryville, Mascoutah and Troy are slated to get $407,500 for station improvements. Another $500,000 is set for parks and recreational facilities in Alton, East Alton, Glen Carbon, Maryville, O'Fallon and Troy.

Southern Illinois University should take in $64.8 million for the ongoing construction of a new science building and $16.5 million for deferred maintenance costs at the Edwardsville campus. The system's dental school is also budgeted for $4.1 million to spend on a new laboratory.

The budget includes $11.5 million for the mental health center in Alton and $600,000 for a hospice home in Edwardsville Township.

But exactly how the capital plan will be financed after this summer is still somewhat up in the air. Kelly Kraft, spokesperson for the governor's Office of Management and Budget, said bonds used in part to pay for the projects would not be sold until a court ruling is issued in a case challenging some of the capital plan's funding mechanisms.

Money allocated through motor vehicle registration and drivers license fees, taxes collected from fuel and liquor sales, bonds and gaming revenue are listed in the capital budget as revenue sources. But in litigation brought by operators at Wirtz Beverage Illinois, a major alcohol distributor, the Illinois Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether budget officials need to match each capital project with a specific revenue source.

Cullerton said Wednesday he expects the court to deliver its opinion in September. In the meantime, Kraft says the Legislature's most recent actions would keep the program rolling along.

"Investors and ratings agencies dislike gridlock but look favorably upon actions which return our state to sound financial footing," she said.

Barton Lorimor is a freelance writer.