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Ill. official’s letter, not law, key to road work

SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration said that when it comes to a boost in road construction this spring, follow the letter, not the law.

A new law signed by the governor allows as much as $176 million to be taken out of a road construction fund.

But in a letter to a top Senate Democrat, Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider promises not to divert that much money from a $675 million plan for highway and bridge construction projects this year.

On Thursday, Quinn approved a $1.5 billion spending plan that includes the construction projects – but it relies on taking millions from the state’s road fund to cover health insurance costs for state road workers. Schneider concedes in her letter that taking the full amount allowed by the law “would have a significant impact” on how much patching and replacement could be done, but she promises that no more than $125 million would be diverted.

The Illinois Department of Transportation determined it didn’t need the higher amount to cover the health care costs, Quinn budget spokesman Abdon Pallasch added.

Rekindling a decades-old debate about road-fund “diversions,” Republicans argued against the $1.5 billion spending plan before it was approved by the Senate.

Republicans complained that it was flawed and rushed through without proper notification to taxpayers because majority Democrats waived a legislative rule requiring six days for public review before a floor vote and called the legislation 48 hours after House approval.

“Why do we need to rely on their word for that?” Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, asked after the Senate’s 38-15 vote. “Why don’t you just rewrite the bill and do it properly and do it the way the Legislature intends?”

Supporters of the road projects were worried, too. But they pushed for quick action on the plan so paperwork could be completed in order to have projects ready to go when solicitations for contractors begin in March. The sponsor, Sen. Dan Kotowski, said lawmakers had to move “expeditiously” and didn’t have time to rewrite the bill.

“I applaud the secretary of transportation for publicly writing a letter indicating the fact they’re only going to spend what they need,” the Park Ridge Democrat said.

The issue threatened to reprise years of bickering by Democrats and Republicans – each side complaining when the other was in power — about using the $1.3 billion annual road fund revenue for purposes other than concrete and back hoes.

Funded primarily by a 19-cents-per gallon motor fuel tax, the road fund has for decades been tapped for all kinds of expenses, from subsidizing state police and other law enforcement agencies that patrol the roads, to financing costly fringe benefits such as health insurance and workers’ compensation coverage for IDOT employees. A 1989 legislative cap on road-fund diversions was sidestepped the very next year.

Lawmakers complained in 2004 that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich had siphoned $533 million to balance the state budget.

The road fund was even identified as the checking account for a $7.8 million anti-violence program Blagojevich devised to put teenagers to work during the summer of 2008. A state investigation concluded last spring that IDOT had overpaid nonprofits participating in the program $644,000. The state report in April 2012, which found teens doing non-road work such as rearranging furniture and working at a golf course, indicated the matter was part of a federal investigation.

Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office in 2009 and last year began serving a 14-year federal prison sentence for political corruption.

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