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Even with tight budget, some Ill. groups fare well

SPRINGFIELD – Even in a tough budget year, Illinois lawmakers can find ways to give special help to a few organizations with the right connections.

A close look at the state budget shows a handful of grants that take money away from general services and divert it to specific groups: $400,000 for a neighborhood development group on Chicago’s South Side, $1.1 million to bus children to religious schools, $750,000 for a commission on Latino families. The list goes on.

Information on how the money will be used is hard to come by. The budget itself doesn’t provide details, the groups getting the money aren’t saying much, and the money is not officially linked to any specific legislator. A budget is a complicated document with many authors, including the leadership, legislative staffers and appropriations committees.

But it’s no secret that the grants were included to help Democrats pass the budget.

“We were scrambling to get votes to pass these bills,” said Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat who chairs a House appropriations committee. “At the end of the day it’s a numbers game.”

The practice of legislators arranging state grants for favored organizations has dwindled in recent years. During the Blagojevich administration, there were times when hundreds of millions of dollars were set aside for legislators’ pet projects.

Now, with money tight and ethics a greater public concern, such grants are the exception.

When bipartisan cooperation on a new budget broke down in the Illinois House, Democrats suddenly had to round up enough votes to pass a budget without any Republican support – a tough job with cuts to spending for education, health care, child-welfare and more.

One way to make the budget a bit less painful was providing small sums to projects important to key legislators.

Crespo said he didn’t recall details of which legislators wanted the grants.

The groups getting the money don’t have much to say on the matter, either.

The Chicagoland Regional College Program is supposed to get $2 million. The program provides financial aid to students who attend one of six Chicago-area colleges and who also work at a UPS shipping facility in Hodgkins, southwest of Chicago.

How will the money be used? Which legislator asked for it to be put in the budget? An administrator with the program said they would not discuss the issue until Gov. Pat Quinn signs the budget into law.

The budget includes $400,000 for the Brainerd Community Development Corp. on Chicago’s South Side. The group shares a building with Democratic Rep. Monique Davis, who has a track record of arranging state aid for the organization. The Chicago Sun-Times has reported that Brainerd employees have collected signatures for her nominating petitions, examined opponents’ petitions and donated to her campaign.

Davis said through an aide that the grant will help Brainerd Community Development provide job training, GED classes, computer courses and other services for the neighborhood. But she would not answer questions about how the grant came to be included in the budget.

Another grant goes to an organization called Agudath Israel of Illinois for school transportation. All public schools in the state will split $206 million in state transportation aid next year, but Agudath alone is getting nearly $1.1 million to bus children to a few religious schools in the Chicago suburbs.

Agudath did not respond to four messages seeking details on the grant and how it would be used.

The grants are supposed to be handed out by state agencies, so they might be expected to know something about them or have some plan for overseeing how the money is used. But aides to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn ignored multiple requests for information.

Even some of the people responsible for writing the state budget seem a little confused.

Sen. Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat who has been a key budget negotiator for years, said he wanted equal grants of $500,000 for the Agudath Israel, the African-American Family Commission and a Latino Commission that wasn’t in previous budgets. But when the House got through with the budget, Agudath Israel’s grant had doubled, the African-American Family Commission was reduced to $400,000 and the Latino Commission was getting $750,000 out of the state transportation budget.

Terry Solomon, executive director of the African-American Family Commission, said the organization has been around since 1994 and might have been forced to close if its annual state funding had been cut off. It studies ways to reduce poverty, violence, joblessness and other problems.

“Our main goal is to help families and communities support the needs of children,” Solomon said.

The Latino commission mentioned in the budget may refer to the state’s Latino Family Commission, which was created in 2007 but seems to be inactive.

Rep. David Reis of Willow Hill, the top Republican on the appropriations committee that oversees public safety, said the Latino Commission grant was an initiative of the committee’s chairman, Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago. Arroyo did not return calls seeking comment.

“There’s a lot of things going on that need airing out,” Reis said. “We need a lot more oversight and debate.”

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