From City Hall to Springfield, we hear the same warning again and again.
We have no money.
Somehow, though, taxpayer dollars materialize mysteriously for one pet project and another.
Our leaders say state and local government desperately need to find new revenue sources and cut spending.
Still, politicians’ desire to cut ribbons seems to often outweigh government’s need to cut costs.
At City Hall, not long after the record neighborhood public school closures, a mayor with low approval ratings among black voters promised a new, elite high school named after President Barack Obama (in a part of town that’s more than 72 percent white). That followed the announcement of a new arena for DePaul University, whose former lobbyist happened to be a top aide to Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the time the costly arena plan was hatched.
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It’s in Springfield, though, where we see the most recent, striking examples of feasting amid the fiscal famine. Undermining their calls for pension reform and employee union concessions, legislative leaders there just can’t help but serve themselves fresh, choice cuts of pork.
The capital bill signed just last week by Gov. Pat Quinn contained a couple of expensive, tasty morsels suited specifically to the palates of the top men in the state House and Senate. Facing a strong Republican challenger, the governor agreed to go along with grants that he should have vetoed for lack of greater details about how tens of millions of public dollars will be spent.
What may be the meatiest hunk landed on the plate of House Speaker and state Democratic Party boss Michael Madigan.
The wording of the legislation says only that $35 million will go to the Chicago Public Schools for new school construction. But Madigan revealed to reporters that the money is earmarked for a school in his home 13th Ward, where he says the public schools are overcrowded.
Not coincidentally, $35 million is the amount Madigan had tried to cook up a year and a half ago for his allies in the United Neighborhood Organization, for a new charter school campus on the Southwest Side, in his legislative district.
But that was before the feds began investigating UNO’s insider deals with another state school-construction grant. Before it became unfashionable for the speaker to wear UNO ball caps at their groundbreaking events.
So will the $35 million once destined expressly for UNO instead be spent on a new CPS school? Will it go to another charter operator?
Madigan hasn’t said, and his spokesman did not return calls about the topic.
A call to CPS officials this week was no more enlightening. A CPS spokeswoman told me, “On background, the district will decline to comment on this one.”
On background? OK, so how the money might be spent is so sensitive a topic that they don’t even want to get caught not talking about it on the record?
Then there’s the $10 million grant that Senate President John Cullerton engineered for the renovation of the Uptown Theater. It’s a few blocks from Cullerton’s district, in the constituency of a loyal member of his Senate Democratic caucus.
It’s estimated that it will take another $70 million to wake the decrepit old theater from its 33-year slumber. But Cullerton’s spokeswoman, Rikeesha Phelon, says the Senate president approved spending $10 million even though he doesn’t know where the rest of the money for the project will come from.
What we do know is that Cullerton’s brother Patrick — who works at the same law firm as the Senate president — has represented the Uptown Theater in its property-tax appeals, according to county records.
Records also show another Patrick — Patrick Daley Thompson, the nephew and grandson of former mayors — is the City Hall lobbyist for the Uptown’s owners, JAM Productions.
Phelon says Cullerton’s only motivation in winning the grant’s approval was to help a pivotal project in Uptown.
It’s enough to make you wonder if the needs of the powerful are being put ahead of the public’s interest.
There’s no evidence yet that spending for the theater plan or for the new 13th Ward school will be monitored any more carefully than the expenditures under Quinn’s scandal-plagued anti-violence program or the suspended UNO schools grant.
Based on what little we’ve been told, these deals look now like nothing more than juicy mounds of bacon and sausage for elected leaders who, at the same time, are preaching the need for the rest of us to count calories.