Lawmakers’ pet projects should have to pass public scrutiny

The state’s $45 billion in capital projects through the Rebuild Illinois initiative in 2019 included $4 billion in pork-barrel projects that were slipped in without any public input, the BGA reported.

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Indicted former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan

Illinois’ former Speaker of the House Mike Madigan speaks during a committee hearing on the Southwest Side to decide who will take over as state representative in the 22nd House District seat, a position held by Madigan since 1971, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file

Politicians have always been accused of being untrustworthy, deceptive and power-hungry by constituents. Indeed, 71% of Americans believe that elected officials don’t care about them, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center poll.

Many Illinoisans, we’re sure, probably feel the same way, given the near-constant flow of unflattering news reports on some of our local and state leaders.

A new Better Government Association investigation certainly won’t help matters when it comes to Springfield lawmakers, especially former House Speaker Mike Madigan.

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As part of the massive $45 billion Rebuild Illinois package in 2019, lawmakers slipped in $4 billion in pork barrel projects, without any public input, the BGA found. That $4 billion included four projects tied to Madigan worth $144 million, as well as projects pushed through by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Democratic majority leaders, Madigan and then-Senate President John Cullerton.

Of the $4 billion in itemized projects, $2 billion was for 18 projects each labeled a “Governor’s Office Addition,” the BGA found. Another $368 million were labeled “House Democrat Leadership Addition,” $326 million were labeled “Senate Democrat Leadership Addition,” and $1.2 billion of projects were identified only as “leadership additions.”

Every Illinois taxpayer, we think, supports the notion of spending on infrastructure improvement, which was the focus of Rebuild Illinois. Roads need resurfacing, bridges need reinforcing, schools need rehab work — the list of projects is undoubtedly long.

But taxpayers surely have a right to know where their money is going before it’s spent. Public works should come with public scrutiny.

Benefits for friends

All four of the former House speaker’s projects, the BGA found, benefitted his political allies, business associates or friends.

First, there’s the $98 million Madigan secured to help curb the noise of train brakes outside three hotels near Midway Airport owned by Jon and Mark Weglarz, clients of Madigan, who is a property tax lawyer. The brothers said they never even asked for the $98 million.

Then there was the $6 million Madigan helped secure for a control tower at Lewis University Airport in Romeoville, a pet project of former U.S Rep. Dan Lipinski, a Madigan ally. Lipinski had tried unsuccessfully to get federal funding for the project before Madigan was able to “kick start” things in the state legislature, an airport lobbyist wrote in an email.

Two other projects also have ties to Madigan. The Academy for Global Citizenship, a privately run, publicly funded charter school near Madigan’s former House District, received $31 million after it hired a lobbyist who once worked for Madigan. The school had only asked for $1.5 million from the lawmaker, the BGA reported.

And John Hancock College Prep, a Chicago public high school in Madigan’s former Southwest Side district, was awarded $9 million — that CPS says it never even requested.

Supporters can argue that these projects weren’t wasteful and ultimately benefit the public. Hotel guests don’t want to hear loud trains during their stay. Airport control towers are needed to manage air traffic. Schools can always use more money.

But such needs exist everywhere in Illinois, not just in neighborhoods and districts where Madigan and other current and former high-level legislators wield power.

Credit the BGA, as well, for finding out that such a thing as “leadership additions” even existed when reporters Chuck Neubauer and Sandy Bergo requested project records from the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget. That term doesn’t exist in the legislation for Rebuild Illinois

Asked how particular projects ended up among the select group of additions, a Pritzker aide told the BGA that the governor picked his projects based largely on his personal contacts and observations.

“Project ideas came from every corner of Illinois,” Carol Knowles, a spokeswoman for the management and budget office, told the BGA.

It’s worth pointing out, too, that the $4 billion in projects was in addition to so-called member initiatives that were part of Rebuild Illinois, in which $600 million was set aside for state lawmakers to direct to projects in their districts.

In Washington, lawmakers are now required to list on their websites each earmark they’ve asked for, with dollar amounts and their rationalization for the use of taxpayer funding, as the BGA reported.

It’s time for the same rule in Illinois.

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