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Rauner pitches Thompson Center sale as ‘home run’ that helps CPS

Gov. Bruce Rauner takes questions about the potential Thompson Center sale during a press conference on Friday. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Gov. Bruce Rauner on Friday pointed the finger at Mayor Rahm Emanuel and House Speaker Michael Madigan for a “tag team effort” to block the sale of the James R. Thompson Center — a deal the governor called “a home run” for taxpayers.

Upping the ante in the ongoing spat, Republican leaders filed a bill that would send property tax revenue from the redevelopment of the Loop site directly to Chicago Public Schools.

Emanuel dismissed the governor’s offer to the nearly bankrupt school system as a “political stunt … from the same person who vetoed” a bill that promised $215 million in pension help already built into the CPS budget.

“I would say to the governor, ‘I know a political act and a stunt when I see one as you do,’” Emanuel said of his old friend, vacation companion and former business associate.

There’s no budget deal, and it’s unclear whether CPS and other school districts will open in time this fall, but the sale of the Loop site has now become the latest in a complex war between Emanuel and Rauner.

On Tuesday Emanuel said he was holding up Rauner’s plan to sell the building because he’s not about to “stick Chicago taxpayers” with a $100 million tab to rebuild the busy CTA station there.

The entrance to the Clarke/Lake CTA station inside the Thompson Center; Gov. Bruce Rauner says the station could remain open with renovations after the sale of the Thompson Center. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Standing in a tepid mechanical room in the Thompson Center on Friday, Rauner cited the immediate need to sell the center, which he said needed an estimated $326 million in deferred maintenance, including a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, plumbing, electrical wiring and maintenance of the exterior of the building.

“It’s a terrible use of taxpayer dollars. We believe that if we sold this building we can get more than $300 million in cash from a developer,” Rauner said. “That’s money that can be used to reduce our budget deficit to the state of Illinois, and we believe we can save millions of dollars annually in just cheaper rent costs … by moving the state employees who are in this building to other office spaces here in downtown Chicago and in Springfield.”

Rauner called the sale a “home run” for city taxpayers — which he said could generate $40 to $50 million a year in new property tax revenue. The site currently doesn’t contribute any property taxes because it’s owned by the state.

The mayor’s office has disputed that figure, saying it’s “inaccurate.” Alex Holt, the city’s budget director said just 20 percent of property tax revenues come to the city.

But if legislation passes the General Assembly, all the money would go to CPS — albeit not immediately.  Rauner said it would provide a “long term” solution.

“We’ve got to help Chicago Public Schools get out of its financial crisis. One of the things we can do as a state is make sure when this building is sold that the new tax revenues coming to this building don’t go into other government bureaucracy, don’t go into other government entities. It goes to Chicago Public Schools,” Rauner said.

Emanuel spokesman Adam Collins called the governor’s interest in funding CPS a distraction from the budget impasse.

“Suddenly he’s interested in funding CPS? That’s rich. This [is] a fraction of funding the governor vetoed for our school children a few months ago. Don’t be fooled. The governor is using this as a shiny object from his own failure to fund education fairly and his failure to propose a balanced budget the entire time he’s been in office.”

The multi-level Clark/Lake CTA station is integrated with the back of the Thompson Center and serves multiple train lines. Mayor Rahm Emanuel says the cost to rebuild the station if the Thompson Center is sold and demolished should not be borne by Chicago taxpayers. Gov. Bruce Rauner said the station could remain open during any construction. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

When asked about the “shiny object” comparison, Rauner laughed and pinned the blame on Madigan.

“The mayor is correct. We should have a balanced budget. We should have had a balanced budget 18 months ago. He should ask the speaker why he’s holding that up,” Rauner said.

The mayor’s office has cited concerns over who would pay for a rebuilding of the Thompson Center CTA station — the second busiest in the city — should the redevelopment require it. The mayor pegged the cost of rebuilding the Clark and Lake station that serves as a nexus for multiple CTA lines at $80 million to $120 million.

But Rauner on Friday said the station can remain in place, as one option.

“We can put a shell over it. It could cost a million or two to protect it. The state could pay for it. The city wouldn’t have to pay anything,” Rauner said. “The mayor is throwing up roadblocks as part of a delay. It seems to be a tag team effort between the mayor and the speaker to come up with delaying reasons.”

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the speaker has been meeting with the administration and city officials “for as long as this whole topic has been discussed to try and move it forward.”

“The state originally just wanted a blank-check approach sort of like where they just say ‘Trust us. Give us all. Pre-empt the city zoning, pre-empt the CTA, federal transportation dollars spent and we’ll all be fine and try and move it along’ and that’s what we’ve continued to do to try to move it along,” Brown said. “Nothing has changed here.”

Brown said the CPS tax bill was never brought up in meetings: “I think there have been several meetings. I thought that was all proceeding. So as far as I know we’re proceeding. I don’t think anybody in the speaker’s side is opposed to the transaction.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pegged the cost to rebuild the Clark/Lake CTA station, a multi-level transit hub integrated with the Thompson Center, at $80 million to $120 million. | Sun-Times photo