Southland legislators derided Gov. Bruce Rauner’s decision to cut funding for the proposed Illiana toll road and contend that the action continues a pattern of disregard for their economically embattled communities.
Rauner, a Republican, announced this week that he would cut funding to the Illiana to demonstrate how he plans to deal with Democratic legislators who have refused to cave in to his demands to pass reforms that the governor considers essential for turning the state around.
The Democrats have passed a 2015-16 budget that spends $3 billion to $4 billion more than Illinois is expected to get in revenue. Legislators have yet to send the budget to the governor because he has indicated that he will veto it.
On Tuesday, Rauner said he would restrict spending on programs to help the poor with child care costs, limit community programs that provide services to seniors to keep them in their houses and out of nursing homes and close two juvenile correctional centers in addition to shutting down the tollway project.
To put the Illiana decision into perspective, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation said a total of $110 million was expected to be spent on the project in fiscal 2016. So killing the road would represent only about 3.5 percent of the state’s current revenue gap.
That’s why some Springfield observers speculated that the governor’s proposed cuts were intended to pressure Democratic legislators, particularly those in the Southland, to break with their political leaders and launch negotiations on his Turnaround Agenda rather than actually solve any of the state’s financial problem..
If the Illiana decision was part of such a broader political strategy the comments of south suburban legislators indicate that it may have backfired.
State Rep. Al Riley, D-Olympia Fields, the Illinois House majority leader, said he “expected” the governor to target the tollway and other programs that help people in economically depressed areas.
“That’s the game that he seems to be playing,” Riley said. “He can’t seem to comprehend that these are public programs and the public’s money and not his decisions to make alone. The Illiana is conceived as a public-private partnership. That means if there is no private investor willing to finance it, there is no Illiana. It doesn’t get done.
“So this is no great cost saving to the people of Illinois. In fact, it would cost the state money. This is a program that has been vetted by engineers, a program agreed to by the governors of two different states, it has passed all sorts of technical evaluation and has passed through the regulatory process. This is a road that would improve the economy of an area that has long been neglected by the state and generate jobs and potential business investment.
“He’s trying to play hardball, does not understand that one person does not make decisions in government,” Riley said. “There are three branches of government, and he chose to derisively ridicule one of them, the Illinois Supreme Court, as it was deciding the pension reform case. How did that work out for the governor?
“He’s going to have to realize that there are three co-equal branches of government and that you can’t dictate terms to any of them. Coming from the business world, he may be used to dictating to people, but he’s not an emperor or a king. This state can’t be run by ideology or making policy to pit one group of people against another.
“Some of us just want to see the south suburbs developed like any other part of the Chicago region,” Riley said. “But the governor obviously believes the state should be investing in communities that already have commercial development and areas with high incomes, while he cuts development and state programs in those areas that are low-income.
State Rep. Will Davis, D-Hazel Crest, echoed many of Riley’s views, while chastising Rauner for refusing to even discuss the economic problems of the south suburbs with area legislators.
“He has never bothered to meet with us as a group,” Davis said. “He has never come out here and talked to us about our priorities, our concerns or in any way demonstrated a willingness to learn about them as far as I’m concerned.
“The Illiana is a project vetted by all of the necessary groups and organizations, and the conclusion is that it is a viable project. It’s a project that is ultimately essential to the development of a third airport. At the very least, I’m disappointed in the decision, but it doesn’t surprise me.”
When asked if Rauner was sending a signal to south suburban lawmakers who have failed to back his reforms and have sided with House Speaker Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, who’s also the state Democratic Party chairman, Davis said, “I don’t know what kind of signal it is sending.”
“I can tell you one thing, it has become clear that the governor has no particular love for the south suburbs,” he said. “The Illiana and the South Suburban Airport are two infrastructure projects that would create jobs and generate commercial growth, and the governor has said he wants to do both of those things. But he has not come forward to support either of those projects.
“We’re talking about thousands of jobs for people and millions of dollars, maybe billions of dollars, in development for a region that has economically suffered. His agenda, his cuts, have a disproportionate impact on low and lower-middle income communities the I represent,” Davis said. “But I haven’t talked to him. He hasn’t asked to talk to me about the region or its needs. He hasn’t asked to discuss ways to make anything better.
“I don’t see his actions so much as an attack on me or any other member of the legislature as I see them as an attack on the entire region, which is heavily reliant on state services.”
State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, sounded a slightly more conciliatory note, although she was equally harsh in her evaluation of the governor’s cutbacks.
“Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I believe there is still a way for us to come to some sort of agreement to avoid the confrontation between the governor and the state legislature that seems to be heading over the cliff right now,” Hutchinson said. “That said, the governor has to realize the people in this part of the state aren’t going anywhere, and I’m not giving up on my part of the state,
“I believe the governor said that his decision to cut the Illiana funding was due to the current financial situation. That seems to leave the door open that he would be willing to reconsider the project once we get over this period. From day one when he took office, he has said he wants to improve transportation and is willing to invest in infrastructure, and this would accomplish both goals.
“I’m taking the long view. I remember how many years it took us to get the I-57/I-294 interchange built. I remember how many years it took us to get the state to accept the responsibility for controlling the third airport project,” she said. “These things take a lot of time, and there are a lot of bumps in the road along the way, so I am looking at this as one of those. Just part of the process.
“That said, the governor has to realize that all the freezing of state grants, all the cuts he’s talking about, are going to hurt a lot of the communities that I serve. These are poor areas where people rely on state services. Those people aren’t going anywhere. I am not going anywhere. We’re still part of the state, and the governor and legislature need to work together to address their problems.
“All of the governor’s cuts, all of his turnaround agenda, seems aimed at hurting the neediest people of this state while helping those who are the most affluent,” Hutchinson said. “All I know is that this is the hardest time ever for those of us who believe in aspirational politics. This is the hardest time I’ve experienced since I’ve been in politics because I’m scared for people who depend on government to do what is right.
“I have some ideas about ways to work with the governor and still help my communities. I’ve talked with other legislators about them, and there is some support out there. We may have a window of opportunity here to do something that everyone can feel good about. I remain hopeful.”