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Ill. Governor Signs $31B Construction Plan

Wed July 22, 2009 - Midwest Edition

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Gov. Pat Quinn on July 13 approved the state’s first construction spending plan in over a decade — a $31 billion infusion expected to create thousands of jobs and help rebuild the state’s crumbling infrastructure that will be paid for through new and higher taxes and a vast expansion of legalized gambling.

The law won wide praise, including among bicycling enthusiasts, labor leaders and school officials. But it drew the ire of gambling opponents who say many people will lose large sums of money now that the state has made it legal to bet on the video poker machines found in many bars, restaurants and truck stops.

“This is jobs. This is Illinois recovery. We’ve got to get our economy back on track,” Quinn said at the bill signing at a West Side Chicago high school. “And, as Franklin Roosevelt said a long time ago, the best way to do it is to prime the pump with public works where the government steps in and builds buildings and builds a lot of other things that the people need.”

Chicago Federation of Labor President Dennis Gannon said the bill will give people jobs across the state.

“This is about putting people back to work,” he said at the bill signing. “This is serious business. This is about 10.1 percent statewide unemployment rate.”

The bill includes $14.3 billion for work on roads and bridges, $7 billion for other transportation projects such as high-speed rail, $3.6 billion for primary education — most of it for building schools — and $1.5 billion for higher education.

A spokeswoman for the governor said the construction plan will support 439,000 jobs over the next six years. She said she wasn’t immediately sure how many new jobs that is expected to include.

Illinois has not had a major government construction initiative since Illinois FIRST more than 10 years ago. The state since then has not been able to keep up with demand for new or rebuilt highways, bridges, schools and public transportation systems.

Legislators say this construction program allocates money more responsibly than past public works programs.

The vast majority of the money will be spent according to existing formulas — so much for each region of the state, so much for this kind of road or that kind of bridge.

About $500 million has been set aside for legislators’ pet projects, but all those projects are supposed to be spelled out rather than kept secret.

In addition, Quinn has discretion over about $1 billion. He said he will spend the money on transportation needs, environmental protection and increasing broadband access.

The largest outlay in the new capital bill will be the $14.3 billion aimed at the state’s network of roads and bridges.

Just under $10 billion of that would fund a program of repair work, while $4 million would be spent on new construction.

Local projects — work done by county road departments and other agencies to maintain their own roads and bridges — will get $500 million, a figure local officials say won’t help much.

Douglas County in eastern Illinois expects to get about $60,000 a year over the next five years.

“Its good, it’s extra money,” said county engineer Jim Crane, but not enough to make much of a difference when he had several bridges he’s closed in the past few years because they need expensive repairs the county can’t afford.

“Some of the bridges that now are closing, you’re talking million dollar repairs,” he said.

The University of Illinois’ flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign will get $57.3 million to gut and renovate Lincoln Hall. Built in 1911, virtually every student at that campus has had at least one class there, but it’s never had a major overhaul, said Randy Kangas, the university’s vice president for planning and budgeting.

“You hear horror stories about lecturers on the main lecture hall with squirrels or raccoons running behind them,” he said. “The infrastructure is so old — the wiring is all 50, 60, 70 years old.”

The campus also will get $60 million in long-promised state funding for the construction of a new supercomputer facility that will, for a time, be home to the world’s fastest computer.

The bill also includes tens of millions of dollars for the state’s Department of Natural Resources, including $17.8 million for bicycle trails.

That’s good news for Illinois’ roughly 4 million cyclists and for the state, which loses tourism revenue to cyclists who look to Wisconsin and Michigan for better-maintained trails to ride, said Ed Barsotti, executive director of the League of Illinois Bicyclists.

Quinn initially refused to sign the construction plan until a new state budget was worked out, too, but he eventually relented. Two weeks into the new fiscal year, Quinn and top lawmakers still haven’t agreed on a new budget.

Illinois will pay for the public works program by selling bonds — in effect, borrowing money and repaying it over 20 or 30 years. The money to repay that debt will come from a variety of taxes and fees, plus a major gambling expansion.

Drivers will pay more for licenses and registrations. The tax on beer, wine and hard liquor is going up. Sales tax will be charged on more items, including iced tea.

And people will now be able to gamble legally on the video poker machines found in so many bars, something that critics call the “crack cocaine” of gambling. They say people will be able to lose large sums of money in taverns, restaurants and truck stops all across Illinois.

Gambling opponents had hoped to talk Quinn out of legalizing video gambling to pay for the construction bill.

Now they say they’ll turn to Illinois’ towns and cities, which under the new law can choose to keep video gambling illegal in their jurisdictions.

“We’ve already sent out like 150 letters to mayors throughout the state, asking the mayors to ban the video poker machines,” said Anita Bedell, executive director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems.

So far, she said, none have responded.

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