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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.”

House Republican leader Tony McCombie of Savanna said she was “shocked” at the extent of the partisan breakdown in the current budget.

Republican Rep. Dan Ugaste of Geneva, who recently joined McCombie’s political leadership team, chafed that Democrats overplayed the spoils of victory.

“I understand there’s majorities and minority parties, and the majorities (are) always going to see a bit more on their side. But to shut the minority out is just the wrong thing to do,” Ugaste said. “It’s not just Republicans in my district. There’s plenty of Democrats in my district.”

Former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar — who led the state throughout much of the 1990s and first won election to the Illinois House in 1976 — said in an interview that he had never seen a more one-sided distribution of local legislative projects.

“If you’re excluding Republican legislators on these projects,” Edgar said, “then you’re excluding geographic areas in the state from getting anything, and I think that’s a mistake.”

The process of doling out pork in Illinois and determining which lawmakers asked for the money and for which projects can be infamously opaque. Democratic Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside declined multiple requests to explain how and why they divided the public money the way they did, leaving it up to the Tribune to sort through reams of budget and agency documents to match up lawmakers and their district projects.

Even when approached at the Capitol last week, Welch directed questions to his spokeswoman, Jaclyn Driscoll, who had previously said answering such questions would be little more than “responding to Republican talking points.”

“You cannot be the party of voting ‘no’ on a budget, refusing to work with the majority party and simultaneously complaining about a lack of public dollars going to your community, while overlooking the hundreds of millions of dollars that actually are,” Driscoll wrote in an email.

McCombie called the Democratic position “absolutely ridiculous.”

“For them to say that we were not wanting to be a part of the process, it’s a lie,” McCombie said. “That’s not true.”

Senate Republican leader John Curran of Downers Grove declined to comment.

Pork-barrel secrecy

Exactly how the local Democratic projects emerged in the current budget is shrouded by a level of secrecy that leaves even many rank-and-file lawmakers from both parties in the dark on matters outside their own districts. But Pritzker’s office provided a few hints.

Manar, Pritzker’s budget point man, said the spending plan the governor proposed last February contained little money for new infrastructure projects, but he acknowledged the final budget contained add-ons he said Harmon and Welch negotiated.

“We presume that Speaker Welch and President Harmon, when they bring things to the table, that what they bring reflects the priorities of the caucuses that they represent,” Manar said.

The governor signed the budget bill almost entirely intact. His only change was to rein in the size of the pay hikes legislators gave themselves because they approved more than the 5% increase authorized by state law.

In a 3,400-word news release that included laudatory quotes from Welch and Harmon, Pritzker proclaimed the budget included funds to help students, expand clean energy, attract industry and bolster child care. He said he worked with lawmakers to “restore fiscal responsibility to our state government after years of mismanagement.”

The Democrats’ push in late May was similar to the typical frenzies that break out in Springfield near the end of session when lawmakers often add pork projects to lure more votes for the budget.

But this time Republicans missed out en masse when the Democrats sent word to rank-and-file members to toss in a few 11th-hour district add-ons.

“The money from the budget, we actually get very little time to figure it out,” said Rep. Joyce Mason, D-Gurnee, explaining how rank-and-file lawmakers need to be ready to identify projects if budget negotiators greenlight local money at the last minute.

“So it was really like a matter of, ‘OK, we have this money available. You can allocate money up to … three or four different projects. Like, we can’t give $10,000 to 20 projects, and so we need your information,’” said Mason, who landed $200,000 for pickleball and playground improvements in Winthrop Harbor, a village just south of the Wisconsin border.

“So if people aren’t talking to the people in their districts,” she said, “they’d be like, ‘I don’t know what we need.'”

The Pritzker administration maintained it takes a hands-off approach to what local legislative projects, often referred to as “member initiatives,” are selected by Democratic caucuses. Yet internal documents obtained from the Pritzker administration give trail markers: Numerous projects listed in agency documents were assigned an “HD” for House Democrats and “SD” for Senate Democrats.

But the governor’s office said it also had a degree of influence on how to allocate some of that cash.

One such case, Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said, is a $30 million allocation for power, gas and water upgrades in the village of East Alton — an increase from the $12 million the governor originally proposed.

An internal tracking document tied the money to Senate Democrats, but Abudayyeh said the governor’s office secured that funding as part of an incentive package in its yearslong effort to woo German manufacturer Wieland Rolled Products to modernize its plant in East Alton, part of the Illinois metro area across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

The town has a Democratic mayor but is represented in the House and Senate by Republicans. One of those Republicans, Rep. Amy Elik of Godfrey, ended up quoted in Pritzker’s news release touting the company’s promised $500 million investment and attended the January announcement despite not voting for the budget.

Manar cited the project both as an example of how the Pritzker administration did make some infrastructure investments in Republican districts and of GOP lawmakers taking some credit even though they did not vote for the budget.

“Why do Republicans show up to ribbon cuttings” when they don’t support the budget, Manar asked, adding the governor doesn’t exclude GOP lawmakers from celebrating “victories for the state.”

Nevertheless, the money for the East Alton improvements came from a separate pot of more than $150 million also set aside for projects that a Tribune analysis of state records shows was heavily tilted toward Democratic districts.

Another $25 million from that pot, for which the Pritzker administration claimed partial credit, is dedicated to the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a project in Chicago’s Fulton Market district backed by Priscilla Chan and her husband, billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Nearly $100 million in remaining projects from that pot — all but exclusively located in Democratic districts — were attributed to Senate Democrats in a Pritzker administration document.

“We’ve not seen this document before,” Harmon spokesman John Patterson said in a statement, without giving specifics about the projects Senate Democrats added to this year’s budget.

While a case can be made that areas represented by Republicans received a sizable share of state money for prisons and parks, for instance, that’s a “weak argument (for Democrats) being quite this heavy-handed,” said John Jackson of Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. “From a good-government standpoint,” Jackson said, “you can’t really make a great argument for it.”

‘Price of admission’

Plugging pork projects into budgets has long been a staple of government and has had a particularly notorious history in Illinois.

In the late 1990s, for example, Republican Gov. George Ryan — a well-known dealmaker who worked with a Democratic-controlled House and GOP-run Senate — helped dole out $1.5 billion for thousands of legislative pork projects for both parties, creating relatively calm political waters.

But fights also have broken out over pork, though not in typical partisan ways. In 2007, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich used local grants as a political weapon against two powerful foes, House Speaker Michael Madigan, a fellow Democrat from Chicago who often clashed with Blagojevich, and Senate Republican leader Frank Watson of downstate Greenville.

Blagojevich punished Madigan and Watson by vetoing pork money for House Democrats and Senate Republicans. But Blagojevich approved the special local funding for legislative caucuses led by Democratic Senate President Emil Jones Jr., an ally from Chicago, and House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego, with whom Blagojevich wished to curry favor in the governor’s battles with Madigan.

But Pritzker’s coming to power in 2019 ushered in a new era in which Democrats have increasingly exercised their dominance in Springfield.

“Usually, the party in power would get more,” said former Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno, who previously represented the Lemont area and served as budget point person for her caucus for years. “Having said that, there’s never been a time in (modern) history that the Democrats have dominated quite the way they do today. That obviously opens it up to more lopsidedness, more abuse, if you will, because they don’t need to bargain. It’s a one-party system, and they know it.”

In 2019, former House Republican leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs negotiated various business tax breaks, worked on shaping Pritzker’s statewide pork-barrel bonanza in his first spring session, pulled off a variety of other GOP wins and secured a cut of the local projects for Republicans along the way.

“I think most of it, if there was going to be any distribution to Republicans, it was conditioned on putting votes on a budget,” Durkin said. “That’s really what it came down to. And I don’t think that practice has changed.”

Durkin said Madigan, the former longtime speaker who faces a corruption trial in October, repeatedly made the same demand for Republican votes on “difficult matters” before cutting in minority party Republicans on at least a share of the budget.

“It’s basically the price of admission,” Durkin said.

McCombie maintained more than $40 million allocated for local Republican projects included in that 2019 budget deal as well as money for various Democratic appropriations remained unfulfilled to this day.

Though Democrats said they tried to work with their GOP counterparts, McCombie said she and other House Republicans went to Welch’s office repeatedly seeking to negotiate on the budget, including during the crucial final weeks of the spring session, but were rebuffed.


“We couldn’t even get to the point of giving our priorities and were never told that there’s an opportunity for member initiative dollars,” McCombie said. “So how could I ask for something I didn’t know (about)? Because we have to know what that is.”

‘You feel like Oprah’

Many, if not most, of the legislative grants Democrats baked into the budget may be indisputably worthy. Yet the state is replete with worthy causes in districts won by Republicans and Democrats alike.

A Tribune sampling of specific earmarks helped explain the motivations behind how and why some Democrats chose projects to sponsor.

Former Democratic Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas said she designated $400,000 for improvements to a skate park in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. She said she secured the money from her $2 million Senate Democratic allotment, which was funneled through the Chicago Park District.

“It is woefully in need of just a complete overhaul,” Pacione-Zayas said. “You still have wooden ramps there. It’s actually very dangerous.”

Pacione-Zayas put the money into the budget last spring before she gave up her Senate position to become deputy chief of staff for Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson.

Before joining City Hall, Pacione-Zayas said, she got to see firsthand the joyous reactions from skate park supporters when she joined local Democratic Rep. Will Guzzardi to announce the funding.

“You feel like Oprah,” said Pacione-Zayas, referencing the popular talk show host known for giving gifts to her audience. “Those are the best calls when they’re in person.”

On Chicago’s Southwest Side, Democratic Rep. Angelica Guerrero-Cuellar divided a $1 million allotment between the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Park District for “costs associated with capital improvements.” She said she distributed the money, named in the budget specifically for “the 22nd district,” based on constituent requests that could include a new playground, new school lockers and lights for children playing night baseball.

“I want to make sure that I can try to go through that wish list of the community members and try to take some things off of (it),” Guerrero-Cuellar said following an event on a drizzly afternoon at a baseball diamond in the West Lawn community. “For me, one way of crime prevention … is if the parks are utilized by the kids and the community. Then the gangs don’t come in here.”

In downstate Decatur, Democratic Rep. Sue Scherer tapped $200,000, according to the budget, for a long-sought new “camel-holding building” at Scovill Zoo, which is operated by the local park district.

Clay Gerhard, the park district’s executive director, confirmed Scherer secured the funding, though he said the zoo is still waiting for the state to release the money.

Long waits for project money are a common refrain among grant recipients, who can sometimes wait years and still never receive the state checks.

“One of the things we really need help with there (in Decatur) is to provide things to make people want to live there, to offer things for families, people with children,” Scherer said.

The park district plans to issue bonds, Gerhard said, to cover a remaining $110,000 for the camel project.

“We’ve hoped for a new holding facility for the camels for over a decade,” he wrote in an email. “During the winter months they were housed in sheds or small barns that were open to the elements.”

In west suburban Naperville, Democratic Rep. Janet Yang Rohr sponsored $800,000 to make her suburb’s riverwalk along the DuPage River safer by extending the path so users can avoid local traffic.

“You have to go through basically a lot of streets, which is not ideal for a bike path,” she said in her Springfield office, occasionally referencing a map of her district.

“I live actually right there,” she said. “So I can see what people have to do in order to get from one part of the path to another.”

In the south suburbs, Rep. Thaddeus Jones chose to give state funds to an organization with a family connection in Calumet City, a town where the Democrat serves as mayor.

Jones told the Tribune he requested $150,000 for capital improvements at C.H.A.M.P.S. Male Mentoring.

He acknowledged his son is a mentor for the program after being a mentee there during his days as a high school student on Chicago’s South Side. But Jones said his son is not a paid mentor, and the lawmaker does not see any conflict in using his legislative office to help fund a program where his son is a volunteer.

“It helped my son become a man, and it helped him come back to be a mentor in this program that’s helping young men save their lives,” Jones said.

“So, I mean, I look at it as a plus and a positive because it’s not only about my son. It’s about saving the lives of Black men in the community who, if not for this program, would have (nowhere) to go,” Jones said. “They don’t have recreation. They don’t have mental counseling. They have none of that. This program does all of that.”

Aside from the $150,000, according to records, the state reached out to the group saying it could acquire additional construction funds. Vondale Singleton, who founded C.H.A.M.P.S., said he wants to build a youth facility, possibly on Chicago’s South Side, “to create our own center for boys and young men of color.”

In Joliet, the $250,000 grant for the Rock and Roll Museum drew kudos from city, museum and tourism officials.

They were “all happy with the investment into the community,” said Rep. Larry Walsh Jr., a Democrat from nearby Elwood who said the money will help address museum safety issues.

“My job’s to bring the money,” he said.

Up north, Democratic Rep. Rita Mayfield of Gurnee took credit for allocating $500,000 to the Elite Striders Drill Team and Drum Corps for renovations to a new headquarters building it just purchased in Waukegan. The state also contributed to purchase the building, records show.

The award-winning group, its website said, aims to give young people a positive experience and develop future civic leaders.

Mayfield pointed to many upgrades needed in the group’s new building.

“Basically, I walked through their building with the city code enforcement and the fire department, and it needs a new roof, wiring, plumbing. It has to have sprinklers for life-safety because there’s kids in there. The parking lot needed repaving,” Mayfield said.

The group provides boys and girls with a “wholesome experience” outside of gangs, Mayfield said.

Mayfield, who recounted how her son previously participated in a similar program that predated Elite Striders, has spent $8,550 from her campaign fund, Friends of Rita Mayfield, for sponsorship of the organization.

Near Illinois’ northern border, the Lake Michigan community of Winthrop Harbor is in line for $200,000 for pickleball and other sports-related pork, or “spork” in Springfield shorthand.

The grant will make the community attractive for people looking for “nice parks and places to go,” said Mason, the Democrat who sponsored the money.

Mason said she learns about local needs and desires from regular meetings with local officials throughout her district. She requested money to be put toward pickleball in Winthrop Harbor because the town doesn’t have a robust parks and recreation program, unlike other communities within her district.

“I don’t think it’s anything crazy,” Mason said.

What’s next

Whether Republicans and Democrats can get along any better in the House and Senate this spring may depend on whether they can even define a common area to negotiate and how to approach it.

Republicans sought last spring to change the Illinois estate tax, address privacy regulations over a person’s biometric identifiers, and extend a tax credit provided through the Invest In Kids program that provided financial help for children to attend private schools.

But the Senate Democrats’ chief budget negotiator, state Sen. Elgie Sims of Chicago, maintained such GOP issues should have been negotiated separately from the budget and that Republicans did not bring those issues up until lawmakers were on the verge of a budget vote.

“They waited until the 11th hour,” Sims said. “We’re getting ready to start voting, and then they (say), ‘Oh, by the way, we need these three things.’”

Sims underscored how Republican districts benefit through increases in funding for education and other programs in the overall budget.

“We try to make sure that every corner of the state has its priorities identified,” Sims said.

But whether that can be accomplished is still in question given the partisan rancor.

Looking ahead to the next budget, McCombie said House Republicans already have started conversations with Pritzker’s team about the spending plan that will be debated this spring and shaped for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

McCombie said she looks forward to working with Harmon’s Senate Democrats, who last year took the lead on the budget, to negotiate the next spending plan.

As for her House counterpart, McCombie said she’s sent a letter to Welch “just stating that our door’s open this year.”

In his eight years as governor, Edgar saw a political kaleidoscope in charge of the legislature: two years with Democrats controlling both chambers, two years with Republicans in control, and four years with Republicans running the Senate and Democrats running the House.

“I just think that sometimes you’re going to want to have some people from the other party with you on some issues,” Edgar said. “It would be wise to do that.”

The lopsided Democratic majorities make it easier to muscle through whatever they want, Edgar said, but the growing partisan clashes are “unfortunate.”


(Chicago Tribune’s Joe Mahr contributed.)


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