Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Springfield Update
The Illinois General Assembly is wrapping up its second week of veto session without a capital projects budget which pays for all of the building projects in the state. Lawmakers and the governor could not agree this past spring on a proposal and the stalemate has continued this fall.

Buried in the governor's list of projects not released yet to the public is $150,000 for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency to use for the Old Slave House. As this is capital money, it can't be used for staffing and operations to reopen the site, but for minor repairs and most likely, a historic structures survey on the house to determine what's original, what's been added and what needs to be done before a total restoration effort is made.

Some of the folks I talked with yesterday in Springfield suggest that a special session will be called in December to deal with the capital budget as there are a number of state and local construction projects on hold until one is passed.

Chicago wants casino gambling and so do a few suburbs. Talk points to a deal possibly being made connecting the expansion of gambling to the capital budget. It appears dead for the veto session, but they have to find money for the capital projects somewhere.

I also talked with local lawmakers Brandon Phelps in the House and Gary Forby in the Senate about the need to reopen the Old Slave House. If they wait a fifth year hoping for operational money in the budget the region would still be lucky if the site opened next fall and more likely not until 2006.

That would put the governor running for re-election during the primary with Southern Illinois' biggest tourist attraction still closed. On the other hand, if the state would lease the site to a regional non-profit group it could be reopened next winter or spring with a major ribbon cutting opportunity for the governor. Likewise, the tourism-funded jobs created in the region would be real and filled by the following year during the primary.

Besides Phelps and Forby, I also talked with state Sen. Donne E. Trotter and Asst. House Majority Leader Lou Jones, both leaders of the legislative black caucus. Both are strong supporters of the Old Slave House. Yesterday's goal was to get everyone on the same page as to reopening the site. Everybody seems to support reopening it, but it often feels as if everyone is waiting for someone else to take the initiative. When I left yesterday, Trotter was over on the House floor talking to Jones and Phelps was expected to join them briefly.

So what's the bottom line? We wait and see.

I also threw out a suggestion to Phelps on another subject concerning tourism that I had worked with his uncle, then-state Rep. David Phelps, and former state Sen. Jim Rea on a decade ago before the current generation of lawmakers from Southern Illinois were elected. It didn't go anywhere then, but the idea is still viable. At the time we called it the Southern Illinois Jobs Through Tourism Act. I'll add more about it later.


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