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 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 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 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 will not discuss the issue until Gov. Pat Quinn signs the budget.
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.
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 Quinn ignored multiple requests for information.