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High court clears way for $31B road-building plan

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SPRINGFIELD — Billions of dollars in construction projects across Illinois will continue this summer after the state Supreme Court ruled today that the state's $31 billion construction package is constitutional.

By Benjamin Yount

SPRINGFIELD — Billions of dollars in construction projects across Illinois will continue this summer after the state Supreme Court ruled today that the state's $31 billion construction package is constitutional.

Lawyers for the Wirtz family, Illinois' largest liquor distributors, had challenged the 2009 law that sought to pay for new roads, bridges and schools by raising taxes on beer, wine and spirits; creating new taxes on candy and shampoo; collecting higher license plate fees and legalizing video poker.

The Wirtz family said the plan violated Illinois' single-subject requirement, in which any legislation must deal with one subject.

But the state's high court early Monday morning, ruled that the law did deal with a single subject — construction.

Justice Anne Burke, who authored the unanimous opinion, wrote: "The various provisions have a natural and logical connection."

The ruling ends months of waiting for lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn. Had the Supreme Court struck down the construction plan, Quinn said lawmakers would "have to take immediate action" to restore the money by holding a special session.

The governor had said earlier this summer that any disruption of the construction program could eliminate 52,000 jobs and grind to a halt more than $16 billion worth of work .

"This means our job recovery program can go forward, full speed ahead," said Gov. Pat Quinn at a news conference today after the decision was announced..

The ruling allows 52,000 people to continue working on construction project this summer, Quinn said, just a portion of the hundreds of thousands of jobs he estimates will be created through the five-year construction program.

"We anticipate about 420,000 people will get jobs because of (the construction plan)," Quinn said. "Those investments will pay great dividends for our businesses and workers for years to come."

Tom Villanova, president of the Chicago & Cook County Building & Construction Trades Council, which represents thousands of construction workers in and around Chicago, said the recession has devastated the state's construction economy. A different ruling could have halted billions of dollars in construction projects under way in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs.

"We have 30-to-35 percent unemployment right now in the building trades," said Villanova. "We've got a number of people who haven't worked in a year, year and a half." Stopping the construction he said "really would have been a blow" to those who are working and those who are still unemployed.

Illinois' $31-billion construction plan is the largest of any state. This summer, Illinois has nearly $16 billion in projects planned.

The high court's ruling not only affects construction projects, but it allows Illinois to use liquor tax revenue that was being held as the legal challenge made its way through the courts.

"We had over $100 million that was held in escrow," said Quinn. "That money now will be freed up. We hope very quickly, we'll be going into the Circuit Court to get that money."

The governor did not specify how that money would be spent.

In addition, the state now can speed up efforts to set up a single legal video poker machine because of Monday's ruling.

"We want to make sure that anything done with video gaming is done in a proper, prudent, and honest way," Quinn said.

With Monday's ruling, Quinn and lawmakers do not need to hold a special session of the Legislature on the construction plan.

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