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Illinois Democrats flexed muscles in passing out pork in Springfield

Dan Petrella, Jeremy Gorner and Ray Long, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his fellow Illinois Democrats approved more than $150 million in the current state budget for local projects hand-picked by their party, a power play over Republicans that is unusual in scope and secrecy even in the history of Springfield’s chronic partisan gamesmanship.

In a state known for negotiating local pork-barrel project funds in at least somewhat of a bipartisan fashion, the maneuver illustrated how Democrats enjoying extraordinary House and Senate majorities flexed their dominance and left minority party Republican legislators wanting.

As Pritzker prepares this month to unveil a new budget blueprint, the Chicago Tribune delved into how deeply Democrats packed the current fiscal plan with goodies from their lawmakers’ wish lists.

They authorized a range of spending for items such as a pickleball court in far North Shore Winthrop Harbor, a skate park in Chicago and a more comfortable home at the downstate Decatur zoo for two camels, Jack and Finnegan.

In one instance, $150,000 was set aside by a south suburban Democratic lawmaker for a mentoring program where his son volunteers. Another $250,000 went to the Rock and Roll Museum in Joliet. And $800,000 became available for the riverwalk in Naperville.

The ruling Democrats, with a modern record 78-40 House majority and an even higher percentage in the Senate with a 40-19 edge, dipped into multiple old and newly designated pools of cash for projects in their legislative districts.

 

State budget records and interviews with rank-and-file lawmakers point to breakdowns of roughly $1 million for each House Democrat and $2 million for each Senate Democrat drawn from two pools of cash totaling nearly $156 million.

The money is in addition to tens of millions of dollars also designated for projects and social programs in Democratic districts, much of it in the Chicago area.

Many Democrats interviewed by the Tribune unabashedly defended carving the pork in a partisan fashion, saying Republicans didn’t deserve the extra dollars for their districts because they refused to support the state’s annual budget. The Democrats also argued Republicans and their constituents benefit from other money that goes to local schools, public universities, prisons and major regional public works projects.

“They didn’t vote for the final budget,” said Deputy Gov. Andy Manar, Pritzker’s budget point person and a former downstate Democratic state senator. “I could point to any number of things that were very good for districts that are represented by Republicans across the state that they ended up voting against.”

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