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State: Full speed ahead for summer road work

road-construction

SPRINGFIELD —  State officials say construction across Illinois is not in danger of stopping, or even slowing down this summer.

By Benjamin Yount

SPRINGFIELD —  State officials say construction across Illinois is not in danger of stopping, or even slowing down this summer.

Gov. Pat Quinn's administration says there are billions of dollars available for road, bridge, and school construction despite a legal challenge to the law the pays for it all.

There had been some question as to whether Illinois had all it needed to move ahead with the second summer of construction that is to come from 2009's $30-billion public works package.

On Tuesday Quinn's budget manager, David Vaught, said Illinois has close to $2 billion in the bank and still has another $5 billion in construction bonds to sell.

"That sounds like a lot of money to have in the bank, but we do have substantial balances that are available .. .and in the capital plan we do, unlike other some other parts of state government."

Lawmakers gave Quinn's office permission to sell the $5 billion in bonds earlier this year.  Vaught said he is waiting for the "right time" to take the bond offering to market.

Part of that determination, Vaught said, will be the resolution of the legal challenge against the construction plan. One of Chicago's largest liquor distributors is challenging the taxes that are earmarked to pay back the billions Illinois must borrow to build new roads, bridges and schools. Vaught calls the case a "minor blip."

"We didn't plan (for it). You don't ever plan for someone to sue you. It is a contingency. We have a stay by the Supreme Court. … If the Supreme Court does not rule our way, we believe the General Assembly is prepared to take further action to reauthorize the (capital) program," Vaught said.

He is quick to point out that of Illinois' $16 billion share of the construction program, only $100 million or so is tied-up in the legal challenge.

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, had said the legal challenge threatened Illinois' construction plan so much that some work may stop this summer. Cullerton is proposing a $1 per-pack cigarette tax increase to ensure work continues for the 2011 construction season. Vaught said there is enough money already available for this summer's projects, though he said Quinn supports a cigarette tax increase.

"The administration supports any necessary re-authorizations. And Governor Quinn does support a cigarette tax." said Vaught "(The governor) believes it would be a very reliable source of funding for paying-off (the construction bonds)."

Lawmakers are not guessing at the fate of a cigarette tax, but the are expressing some concern about the dollars Vaught is talking about.

State Rep Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg, said if Illinois has $2 billion in the bank then why was there ever talk of missing a summer construction season.

"We have not had any discussion about construction in so long, but I am kind of surprised that there is that kind of money just laying around."

State Rep Dan Beiser, D-Alton, is in charge of the House Transportation committee. He said Vaught's comments are the first he's heard about $2 billion in the bank. That's all the more reason, Beiser said, to let the court take its time with the legal challenge.

"I think we can now wait on the courts," said Beiser.

The Illinois AFL-CIO was not available for comment on the funding, or progress of the statewide construction plan.

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