Ryan defends Illinois FIRST spending choices - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Ryan defends Illinois FIRST spending choices


PRINGFIELD — First billed as a way to fix crumbling roads and schools, Illinois FIRST has done far more.

The five-year, $12 billion program funded by higher alcohol taxes and vehicle fees has paid to send a suburban high school performance group to Washington, D.C., and covered the rent and other working costs for organizations ranging from the Vietnamese Association of Illinois to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders in Highland Park.

And while many worthwhile projects have been undertaken, Illinois FIRST has faced growing criticism largely because of the inclusion of more than $1 billion in lawmakers' pet projects that have grown increasingly suspect given the state's dwindling economic condition.

Cynthia Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said her organization was concerned from the beginning with the spending and the lack of disclosure before checks were written, particularly when the state's financial status turned south.  "A lot of good stuff seems to have gotten done, certainly," Canary said. "But it also seemed like the state was awash in projects and money until it wasn't.

"It's really not a question that our state didn't need to do some major infrastructure projects, because we certainly did. And it's not a question that different projects have different meaning to different communities," Canary said of Illinois FIRST, launched by Gov. George Ryan and lawmakers in 1999.

"But you could never get a handle on the whole picture," Canary said. "Every now and then you'd hear, 'It's a Little League field, it's a stained glass window,' and you'd wonder, 'What's that about?'µ"

To help win support for the program and to keep tax hikes lower than first proposed, lawmakers and the governor agreed to set aside money for local projects in 1999 when the state's bank accounts were flush with cash as Illinois' economy soared. Lawmakers' projects included $25,000 for a Jack Benny statue in Waukegan, $10,000 for Naperville's carillon bells, $100,000 for golf clubs and lessons for at-risk children in Kane County, $2,500 for a McHenry County story-telling festival, and $15,000 in equipment for a Cook County Ukrainian dance ensemble. 

Some lawmakers object to these projects being classified as Illinois FIRST spending, saying it has turned a public works program into a catchall for state spending.

"Illinois FIRST is a convenient explanation for whatever people want to take credit for," said state Sen. Steven Rauschenberger, an Elgin Republican.

Ryan argues lawmakers have done a good job selecting projects for Illinois FIRST dollars.

"Ninety-nine percent of it has been used wisely. Have there been some mistakes made? I suppose. Can I point them out? No, not really,"

Ryan said, saying it's "nonsense" to focus on the negative side of Illinois FIRST.

"Of the thousands of projects and millions of dollars that have been spent, I'm sure that even the dimmest of minds could probably find a dozen or half a dozen projects that they could say weren't worthwhile," Ryan told a Daily Herald reporter. "This has been an excellent program for a lot of communities, including communities like yours. And you ought to point that out."

Grasping exactly how decisions are made on spending, however, often borders on impossible. 

Three years ago, key business groups recommended creating a panel to oversee Illinois FIRST spending. The members would oversee public disclosure of project information and help set priorities to preserve public confidence in the massive spending program. Requests would have been subjected to a "taxpayer value test" to reduce waste and ensure priorities and need, rather than politics, drove funding. 

The oversight panel never came about, and little to no public information is available about what projects are being considered, until the money is actually approved. There is no Illinois FIRST checkbook to consult. Much of the borrowing was tacked on to existing state credit lines.  After the first year, the Illinois Department of Transportation simply stopped tracking which projects were Illinois FIRST projects. 

In each of its annual progress reports on Illinois FIRST, the Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council cites the need for more information about projects and priorities so employers, elected officials, the media and the public can assess the program.

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