Illinois roadwork projects at risk in budget standoff

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois’ transportation secretary says the state faces the unprecedented prospect of missing a road construction season if lawmakers fail to approve a stopgap spending plan that Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed.

“We’re on the brink of what was once unthinkable: the suspension of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s construction program,” IDOT chief Randy Blankenhorn said Wednesday at a news conference with Rauner in the governor’s Statehouse office. “We were able to avoid this scenario a year ago with the passage of a capital appropriation that was signed by the governor, who clearly understands the role Illinois plays as a transportation hub of North America.”

On the final day of the Democratic-controlled Legislature’s spring session May 31, the Republican governor proposed a temporary spending plan that would fund elementary and secondary education next school year and other state operations through December. Included are funding for road construction and money to restart work on projects at state facilities that have been delayed for the past year because of the lack of spending authority from the General Assembly.

“We are on a collision course with having to shut down projects throughout the state in a matter of a few short weeks,” Blankenhorn said. “I can’t overstate the consequences of inaction.”

IDOT has more than 800 ongoing projects totaling more than $2 billion and involving 25,000 workers, he said. Without legislative approval for continued spending, those projects will shut down when the state’s new fiscal year begins July 1, and the state will incur additional costs to restart them.

Jodi Golden, who heads the Capital Development Board, said her agency has faced a similar scenario for the past year because “the majority party” didn’t approve spending for more than 200 ongoing projects at public universities and other state facilities.

“The sad truth is, without a stopgap funding bill, we won’t be able to pay for the necessary projects to fix our corrections facilities, our universities and our veterans homes,” Golden said.

Both agency heads said the lack of funding also has an economic impact on the communities where projects are supposed to take place.

Rauner, who spent the past year saying he wasn’t interested in short-term budget solutions, now is urging lawmakers to return to Springfield to pass his stopgap plan. He said it represents a compromise because it isn’t attached to any items on his pro-business, union-weakening “turnaround agenda.”

“It’s fair. This is affordable. It’s the right thing to do,” Rauner said Wednesday.

The governor said a plan that allows schools to open on time in the fall and funds other state operations until after the November election would allow negotiations to continue on the “balanced budget with reforms” he has been pushing for since taking office.

“We’ve got to take a short-term action now and then a long-term action,” he said.

On a similar note, Rauner defended the plan to go the bond market Thursday to borrow $550 million to fund construction projects despite the lack of a budget.

“Borrowing for government operations is not the right thing to do,” he said, adding, “What is appropriate — and is always appropriate, no matter what — is to grow our economy and grow jobs through infrastructure. We can’t have a healthy economy, we can’t create jobs, unless we invest in our infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, bipartisan groups of lawmakers continue meeting to negotiate broader compromises on the budget and Rauner’s policy agenda.

Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, was at the Capitol on Wednesday for one of those meetings. He said progress is being made but reaching an agreement by July 1 seems unlikely.

“It’s kind of slow,” Forby said. “I’m kind of a fast-track guy. I’d like to see it go faster, but they are working, and I think they’re worthwhile — or I wouldn’t be here.”

By: Dan Petrella Times Bureau