Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Quinn says he will freeze
funds for Capitol renovation

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn said today that he is cutting off the funding for any future renovation to the state Capitol building.

Quinn told reporters in Chicago that he wants the spending decisions on the renovations reviewed. This comes in the wake extensive media coverage of some of the pricier components in the revamp of the west wing of the building, including copper-plated doors that came with a $670,000 price tag. “The bottom line is, I instructed our budget director to hold up the appropriation for any further renovation work on the state Capitol,” Quinn said today. “There’s some things there that needed to be done — life and safety issues, removing asbestos, making sure that it’s accessible to people who needed an opportunity to come to the Capitol. But the bottom line is, I’ve said right from the start that this was excessive. We don’t need to have the palace of Versailles at our state Capitol.” Quinn said he had no control over the spending decisions made as part of the renovation. However, he did sign off on $250 million for Statehouse renovations as part of the capital construction bill that lawmakers approved in 2009. Quinn touts that plan as one of the major accomplishments during his time in office.

A commission appointed by the legislative leaders oversees the nuts and bolts of the renovation. Quinn laid the blame at the feet of Capitol Architect Richard Alsop III, saying he needs to be “reined by the legislative commission that he reports to.” Alsop did not respond to a request for comment. The west wing renovation, which cost $50 million, is all but completed. The plan was to move on to the north wing of the building next, but Quinn said that he does not plan to make money for that available until the work that has already been completed can be assessed.

As public outrage over the shiny doors at the west entrance of the building has grown, many lawmakers have rushed to denounce the spending. Former Gov. Jim Thompson has been one of the few vocal supporters of the renovation in recent weeks. “Where were they supposed to buy the doors and maidens [statues] and chandeliers?” he asked in an interview with Chicago magazine. “Walmart, Lowe’s?” He noted that the money is part of the capital budget and cannot be spent on other needs, such as education and human services. Thompson said the Statehouse is the most important building in the state and that the attention of leaders would be better focused on pension reform.

Still, many — including Quinn’s political opponents — say they find the expense tough to swallow at a time when the state has been slashing human services and education spending and is billions of dollars behind on its payments to vendors. “Under Governor Quinn, thousands of teachers have been laid off, health care has been cut, yet he somehow approves over $1 million for fancy chandeliers and doors and wastes $5 million a day failing to fix the pension mess,” Bill Daley, Quinn’s challenger in the Democratic primary for governor, said in a prepared statement. Republican gubernatorial hopeful Kirk Dillard called for an audit of the renovation project. “In light of published reports that $700,000 was spent on three pairs of Capitol doors, and nearly $500,000 was spent on four chandeliers and two sculptures, we need to find out whether there's any more excessive spending and try to stop it,” he said in a prepared statement. Dillard voted in favor of the funding for the renovation in 2009 when the capital bill passed.

Dave Blanchette, a spokesman for Quinn and a former spokesman for the Capitol Development Board, said that because the architect only reports to a panel appointed by the legislative leaders on such decisions, there were no red flags to alert Quinn to some of the more extravagant spending choices. “There’s very little that can sound alarm bells about something like this.” He said Quinn has not yet commented on how he might have preferred to see the funds used, only saying that he did not agree with the “excessive flourishes.” He added that not all the money had to spent on the renovation. Blanchette, who has also served as the deputy director of the Abraham Presidential Library and Museum, said the library and museum saved some of its budgeted funds for any contingencies that might pop up after the project was finished. He said the money came in handy when the climate control system did not function properly and had to be replaced.

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