Pickleball courts, dog parks and grants for an arts program led by House Speaker Michael Madigan’s wife are on a lengthy list of lawmakers’ pet projects paid for by a massive gambling expansion and tax hikes on smoking and parking.
The pork barrel bonanza comes courtesy of Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s $45 billion construction program that lawmakers approved as the spring legislative session spilled into overtime last weekend. It’s a signature away from becoming law.
The plan was hastily put together, and it’s not yet clear where all the money will be spent. The 362-page bill contains lines with lump sums worth hundreds of millions of dollars that don’t list specific projects.
Frenzied lawmakers scrambled to put together wish lists. Some had them ready for months, some are still compiling them and some asked for more than their allotment in case there’s a little extra available. Still, many lawmakers left Springfield with a lot of questions about how to turn their concepts for projects into reality.
How much each rank-and-file lawmaker gets to claim for his or her district is a bit of a moving target, but several Senate Democrats said they were allotted about $6 million each for what’s euphemistically called “member initiatives.” Several House Democrats said they received about $3 million each from a program their party’s rookie governor had pushed for months.
For the out-of-power Republicans, the calculation was different. The GOP had spent most of the spring session opposing Pritzker’s graduated income-tax plan, warning that it was a gateway to future Democratic tax hikes. Now Republican lawmakers were faced with voting for the series of tax hikes to fund their favored projects.
The opportunity to bring home the bacon proved tempting for some GOP lawmakers frustrated by four years under former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner that produced gridlock. In exchange for holding out for pro-business initiatives, some Republicans embraced higher taxes and fees to support the projects.
In addition, the governor’s capital bill contains big dollars for highways, bridges and public transportation supported by the state’s higher gas taxes and license plate fees.
All told, Springfield hadn’t experienced a major capital plan since 2009, when then-Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn took over for the impeached Rod Blagojevich. And the Capitol hadn’t seen such a flurry in 20 years, when deal-making Republican Gov. George Ryan pushed through a massive construction program.
“It was a rocky ride,” said Democratic Sen. John Mulroe of Chicago, who hadn’t seen this kind of money made available for rank-and-file lawmakers during his nine years in Springfield. “The plane was landing, it could have crashed, but it came to a smooth landing. We’re all happy about it. We just got out of the airport a couple of days late.”
Speaker Madigan played a big role in carving up the pork-barrel spending. Included in the bill is $50 million for grants to be doled out by the Illinois Arts Council, which is chaired by Shirley Madigan, the speaker’s wife.
Steve Brown, a spokesman for the speaker, said many lawmakers have long shown support for the art group’s initiatives.
Madigan’s 13th Ward in Chicago also will benefit. There’s $9 million for upgrades to Hancock College Preparatory High School, where city Public Building Commission records show a replacement school with a capacity of 1,080 students is moving forward just south of Midway Airport. Brown noted there’s a “lot of overcrowding” in area schools.
Also falling within Madigan’s sphere of influence on the Southwest Side is a $31 million grant for a new building for the Academy for Global Citizenship, an independently operated charter school in the Chicago Public Schools system. It’s slated for construction at 44th Street and Laporte Avenue, which is represented in the House by freshman Democratic Rep. Aaron Ortiz of Chicago, who did not return messages seeking comment.
Ortiz won election with help from Democratic U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, who recently has allied himself with Madigan. Brown said Madigan supported the charter school money because it is headed by a “reputable group and they have a site.”
Sarah Elizabeth Ippel, the school’s executive director, said plans call for a new Educational Learning Laboratory and Community Sustainability Hub, a solar-powered kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school that also will include a 3-acre urban farm that will grow food for the cafeteria.
The suburban portion of Madigan’s House district also scored $98 million in transportation-related funding to address the “long screeching noise” from trains at the Belt Railway Yard in Bedford Park, said Dave Brady, the village president.
Residents and hotel guests, sometimes subjected to noise exceeding 90 decibels, have complained since equipment was installed about two years ago to “basically eliminate the possibility of runaway trains,” Brady said.
The capital spending plan lists millions of dollars for baseball, football and soccer fields, basketball and tennis courts, playgrounds, bike paths and other recreational venues throughout the state. In Springfield, that’s known as “spork” — sports-related pork.
Standing to benefit is pickleball, a fledgling sport that’s part tennis, part badminton and part pingpong. Democratic Sen. Terry Link of Vernon Hills tucked in $100,000 for the Buffalo Grove Park District for pickleball courts and other renovations.
The Park District plans to seal coat eight new courts at Mike Rylko Community Park because the paddle sport has “really taken off,” said Ryan Risinger, the district’s executive director. The new courts would replace rarely used sand volleyball courts, he said.
There’s also $20,000 for pickleball courts at Gwendolyn Brooks Park in Chicago’s North Kenwood neighborhood. Freshman Democratic Sen. Robert Peters said the court provides “first touches” for people in his district, saying he made choices based on local experts and community leaders who saw the need to upgrade broken and rusted equipment.
“I hope people understand why kids feel like they can’t even be in their own neighborhoods right now — if the park isn’t even safe in its structure,” Peters said. “Growing up on the South Side, the park was where I would go when I couldn’t go home. It’s its own shelter in a time of need.”
The spending plan also includes plenty of money to make sure the family dog is well-exercised — $400,000 is set aside for dog parks.
In the city, CPS would get $50,000 for dog park construction at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood. The Chicago Park District would get $200,000 for dog parks at Nicholas Park in the Hyde Park neighborhood and another location that’s unclear from the legislation.
In the suburbs, the Fox Valley Park District would receive $150,000 to build a dog park on the northeast side of Aurora and upgrade existing dog parks at the Stuart Sports Complex in Montgomery and at Lincoln Park in Aurora.
Religious, ethnic projects
In Springfield, projects for ethnic and religious institutions are often popular, despite concerns over the separation of church and state.
South Side Democratic Sen. Jacqueline Collins said she secured $370,000 for the Inner City Muslim Action Network to help with renovations of a building at 63rd and Racine Avenue to provide a grocery store for healthy food.
The group also would receive $30,000 for lighting and other final touches to a memorial honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s August 1966 march in the Marquette Park neighborhood, where the civil rights leader was struck by a rock during an equal housing demonstration.
Collins hailed King as her role model, saying the Nobel Peace Prize winner espoused hope and promoted a social justice where “every individual can make a difference.”
The spending bill also provides $200,000 for Another Chance Church in the Roseland neighborhood.
There’s $50,000 for Lubavich Chabad for renovation of the museum of Jewish history, collaboration space and social space. And there’s $200,000 for the Jewish United Fund of Chicago for renovations to The Ark, a nonprofit social service agency. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago is set to receive $20 million for affordable housing for families and veterans in Waukegan.
Northwest Side Democratic Sen. Ram Villivalam said he secured millions of dollars for a Pan-Asian community center with services for seniors, people with disabilities and youths for the fast-growing population.
The goal is to help a community that ranges from Indian, Pakistani and Cambodian to Japanese, Korean and Chinese, likely at a location in Skokie, said Villivalam, the first Indian-American member of the General Assembly.
North Side dollars
North Side lawmakers are influential in the legislature, and the capital spending bill reflects that.
The plan includes nearly $1.5 million for an AIDS Garden to memorialize Chicago’s fight against HIV and AIDS.
“The AIDS Garden is a community project that creates beauty in a historic space at the Belmont Rocks, where the gay community would gather in the early days of Chicago’s LGBT movement and the AIDS epidemic,” said sponsoring Democratic Rep. Sara Feigenholtz. “To the larger community who lived through this struggle — ‘the Rocks’ are a sacred space. Enshrining it in history at a garden surrounded in beauty designed to reflect the history of this movement is important.”
Democratic Sen. Heather Steans and House Majority Leader Greg Harris secured $1.5 million in grants for construction of TimeLine Theatre in the Uptown neighborhood, a project that already has backing from the city and private philanthropy.
Harris said roads, bridges and schools aren’t the only capital projects that provide value for taxpayers’ dollars.
“A lot of different neighborhoods were fighting for them to locate there,” Harris said. “So I’m glad they’re coming up Uptown.”
Eye of beholder
The differing opinions on what’s a legitimate project and what’s not are inevitable in a state that has a multibillion-dollar backlog of bills and a $134 billion, worst-in-the-nation pension debt. But while supportive lawmakers note the latest borrowing is backed by the basketful of new and higher taxes and fees, others argue that spending is spending and taxpayers pay either way.
That was the dynamic among House Republicans.
Rep. Tom Demmer, a ranking Republican from Dixon, said during debate that he supported the overall budget and construction package along with the taxes and fees. The wide-ranging plan represented a good compromise even though there are “some things I’m not so keen on,” he said.
“The difficult vote for me is a priority for somebody else, and the difficult vote for somebody else is a priority for me,” Demmer said.
But Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican, said he had no trouble deciding. He voted against the wide-ranging capital plan because it relies on enacting “massively higher taxes” and making Illinois gambling “way too expansive,” he said.
House Republican leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs said he placed his priorities on securing a series of pro-business measures in exchange for votes on the budget and construction plans rather than focusing on a list of specific projects.
“In that flurry of activity the last two days, it was intense, but it was productive,” Durkin said.
Democrats had more time to earmark projects, though many line items are bereft of details. Republicans now have started sorting through how to divide lump sums worth tens of millions of dollars, part of the process that Durkin said should be “more transparent.”
The long list of projects is fueled by new money from the casino gambling expansion, a new sports betting program, and increased taxes on parking, smoking and video poker. The transportation projects are being paid for by increases in the gas tax and vehicle sticker fee.
Rep. Mary Flowers said fellow House Democrats each were allotted $3 million to $4 million to spread around their districts to fill requests for schools, roads, bridges and other projects. Back in her South Side district, Flowers said she was still examining what requests made it into the final package.
“The governor kept things under wraps,” she said. “Then, when he came out, he came out in a big way. The governor tried — from the most northern tip to the most southern tip of the state — he tried to make accommodations for everyone. I can’t say everybody got everything, but I do know the efforts were made to accommodate as much as possible.”
After years of Springfield gridlock, Flowers said, the money helps address pent-up needs and puts Illinois “on course to move forward.”
“Everybody was kind of happy about being able to bring something home,” she said.