Obama presidential library: Explosive backlash over state funding

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WASHINGTON — A move by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan to muscle through a measure to appropriate $100 million from the cash-strapped state to help finance the construction of President Barack Obama’s presidential library and museum in Chicago is erupting into a controversy.

The backlash is strong enough that a committee vote Madigan engineered last Thursday in Chicago to advance the $100 million plan to the House floor now will be retaken in Springfield on April 30.

And this time, state GOP House members, now paying attention — and being stung by Madigan’s legislative sleight-of-hand — will attend the hearing.

The competition for the Obama facility had been humming along, hullabaloo-free, with the Chicago-based Barack Obama Presidential Foundation, acting on behalf of the president and first lady Michelle, preparing to sift through first-round bids due on June 16.

Then, out of the blue, Madigan proposed the unsolicited, giant, State of Illinois sweetener to build the case for the Obama library to be built in Chicago even as the state is looking for cash to pay billions of dollars in bills and pensions.

The foundation certainly did not ask for anything from the state. My goodness, the last thing I can imagine is foundation chief and Obama pal Marty Nesbitt wanting to get embroiled in the Springfield snakepit or a City Hall cesspool.

The entities preparing bids did not ask, either. Under the federal Presidential Libraries Act, presidential libraries are built with private money and maintained through a mix of a private endowment and federal funds.

The Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield, which did get millions in state money, is not a part of the 13-library federal presidential library system, so exact comparisons with the future Obama facility — which Madigan was making — are not apt.

The roots of the current federal system started with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who raised private money for his building and turned it over to the National Archives to operate.

Last Thursday in Chicago, Madigan orchestrated a hearing before the state House Executive Committee, made up of four Republicans and six Democrats. None of the Republicans showed up — this will teach them — while three Democrats on the panel were there, state Reps. Robert Rita, Edward Acevedo and Luis Arroyo.

(Arroyo’s contribution was to throw a hissy-fit at the hearing that Obama, a former state senator, was not returning to the Illinois General Assembly to deal with this bit of legislation. )

The short hearing featured only players who spoke out in support of landing the library in Chicago, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel and representatives of the rivals preparing bids, the University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago and Chicago State University.

To make a long story short, Madigan invoked a parliamentary technique to use a roll call from the previous day to push the measure through the committee.

In his defense, state Rep. Ed Sullivan, R-Mundelein, the top Republican on the panel, told me there was not supposed to be a vote at the Thursday hearing; Madigan bringing in “big players” to testify last Thursday was a surprise, and Madigan calling a vote “broke several rules.”

That no Republicans showed up — if nothing else, just to complain — well, the House is on spring break.

Sullivan is for a privately funded Obama library in Illinois. “I’ll write a $1,000 check tomorrow, tell me who to write it to” — but said the state can’t afford the largess.

“Some of our Republican friends decided to demonstrate their tea party gene because the word Obama was mentioned,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown told me. “So the committee will meet again on the 30th and there will be another vote on the bill.”

Will the outcome of the April 30 revote be the same?

“Prior to this little wave of tea party that flushed through Illinois since last week,” said Brown, “I was unaware of any real opposition.”

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