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Thursday, June 10, 2004 02:37 pm

Room for pork

Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s move to curtail pork-barrel spending could be a victim of budget impasse
Photo courtesy of State of Illinois

Among Rod Blagojevich's first acts as governor was to freeze the controversial pork-barrel spending that flowed so freely during George Ryan's administration.

Blagojevich trimmed pork funding in half, and assembled a review board to examine each of the thousands of taxpayer-funded pet projects requested by state lawmakers.

Only projects benefiting education, health care, public safety, and economic development would be approved, he said.

But today, despite a $2.3 billion gap in the state budget, the governor and Democratic leaders have earmarked $24.9 million for legislators' initiatives.

They include such oddities as $15,000 for a leaf machine in Wonder Lake and $10,000 for a skate park in Hebron.

"These projects in the budget will not necessarily be approved," says Blagojevich spokesman Becky Carroll, noting the wrangling among leaders that resulted in last week's failure to pass the budget on time.

But each of the pork-funded projects, initially appropriated under Ryan's Illinois First infrastructure program, is contained in the two competing budget proposals advanced last week.

Cindy Davidsmeyer, a spokesman for Senate President Emil Jones, whose district is slated to receive at least $5,000 through the grants, says the deals were already sealed.

"Warrants had been issued for projects already started," she says. "It's like issuing the payment for the check to be cut. We're kind of obligated to complete it."

During Ryan's tenure lawmakers set aside some $1.5 billion for what they termed "member initiative" grants. While much of that money went toward infrastructure projects, like road and sewer improvements, a pair of separate investigations showed some of it was used for political purposes.

A 2002 study by then-Northwestern University Professor Michael Herron revealed that the funding was steered to protect incumbents. Legislators in vulnerable districts routinely received significantly larger grants than those in uncontested districts, he concluded.

Earlier that year, the Chicago Tribune reported that some of the money went to programs "tied to cronies, relatives, favored religious groups and private agencies that legislators helped run."

When Ryan considered diverting the funds due to state fiscal constraints, House Speaker Michael Madigan was quoted as saying, "That's my money; you can't touch it."

Blagojevich's apparent decision to include some of the leftover pork in the budget he and Jones crafted has raised some eyebrows.

"Member initiatives, when used in previous administrations, have been used as political horse-trading chips," says Cindi Canary, director of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "The practice historically has been perverse."

Kent Redfield, political science professor at University of Illinois at Springfield, says this year's prolonged budget fight makes the issue especially troubling. During the current overtime session, he says, only top lawmakers are being invited to the closed-door meetings to hammer out a final budget.

"The more discretion you put into the hands of leaders, the more slippage you're going to get," Redfield says.

Some Republican lawmakers have criticized Blagojevich and other Democratic leaders for saving room for pork at a time when jobs and services are being slashed.

But Springfield's legislators say they trust the grants are being put to good use.

"It's a way of getting taxpayer money back to their community," says Sen. Larry Bomke, R-50. "I don't see anything wrong with it."

Rep. Raymond Poe, R-99, had a list of some two dozen pork projects approved under Ryan, but then frozen by Blagojevich. They included $150,000 for infrastructure improvements at Springfield Muni Opera, $50,000 to remodel the Contact Ministries homeless shelter, and $25,000 for kennel additions at the Animal Protective League.

Poe's views were echoed by his legislative colleague, Rep. Rich Brauer, R-100.

"Who knows better where to spend money in a district than a legislator? I have my wish-list out there."

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