Panel’s recommendation could throw wrench into Blagojevich’s IDOT plans

Ryan Keith

Gov. Rod Blagojevich made quite a splash this spring when his administration announced it was moving the traffic safety division of the Illinois Department of Transportation from Springfield to southern Illinois. 

A panel of state lawmakers will consider the pros and cons of the move in a public hearing at the state Capitol starting at 5 p.m. Thursday, when employees, lawmakers, state officials and others make their case. The commission will consider the testimony and eventually will recommend to the governor whether he should pursue the move or change course.

Here are some questions and answers about who and what are involved in the move and what happens next, heading into the hearing.

Q: What is this move all about?

A: Blagojevich’s administration announced in late spring it was moving the traffic safety division and its nearly 150 jobs to southern Illinois.

That would provide both millions of dollars in economic benefit for a region that badly needs it and put government operations in a far-flung part of the state, the administration argued. Plus, officials said, it would be more cost-effective in the long run for the state to have the division in Harrisburg than to keep it in the capital city.

The announcement drew an immediate backlash from Springfield lawmakers, who said it was politically motivated and didn’t make sense financially for the state or for this region.

Since then, both sides have fought publicly over the relocation.

Q: Why has this drawn so much attention and angst?

A: There are policy and personal motivations.

Blagojevich is frequently criticized for not living here or paying much attention to this region, so some see this as another example of him snubbing Springfield. The governor wants to make more moves like this, saying other parts of Illinois should reap the benefits of having government closer to their backyards.

“We expect that that’s just the beginning of a trend,” Blagojevich said in announcing the move in Harrisburg in late June.

People here fear that will further hurt the capital city and mean more employees will be on the move.

“This needs to stop before it happens to another division,” said Cathy McGill, a 38-year IDOT employee.

Local lawmakers question the logic of taking state jobs in one part of Illinois and moving them to another part. Even if it benefits the Harrisburg area, taking jobs out of Springfield offers no gain for the state overall, they argue.

Q: What arguments does Blagojevich use to support the move?

A: The administration was required to submit a report to lawmakers justifying the move earlier this month. That report says the move will pump $15 million into the southern Illinois economy while costing Springfield about $9 million, along with dozens of jobs created and lost in each area — outside of the 100 or so directly involved in the move.

The report also says IDOT considered other Springfield locations when the lease for the traffic safety building was coming up for renewal. But the agency decided it would be cheaper over 10 years to buy part of an old car dealership in Harrisburg and relocate rather than renting, either in Springfield or down south.

IDOT says there’s no “comparable space available” at its headquarters building in Springfield, so that isn’t an option.

Springfield lawmakers say there is plenty of space available here and are looking at whether a section of state law called the Seat of Government Act could restrict Blagojevich’s ability to move government jobs out of the capital city.

Q: Why is this legislative hearing needed?

A: A 2004 law gives the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability – a bipartisan group of six senators and six House members — the power to review and make recommendations to the governor on closure of state facilities involving 25 or more state workers.

The administration submitted its report defending the move to the commission several weeks ago. Now the group will publicly dissect all the elements of the move and arguments for and against it.

The commission has already shown skepticism. When the report was made public, executive director Dan Long said he believes it underestimates the effect on Springfield of transferring the jobs and assumes 31 people will retire rather than relocate — which could be a high number.

“We have a lot of questions about this analysis,” Long said.

Q: What happens after the hearing?

A: The commission will consider the testimony and report in the coming weeks and recommend to the governor whether he should pursue the move or change course.

The administration has proposed eight closures since the 2004 law, with most buildings eventually closed after little or no public or employee criticism. But this is the first truly high-profile closing to be considered in that time.

Blagojevich vowed in Harrisburg that it was essentially a done deal, saying the hearing wouldn’t change anything.

“This is something that has already happened,” the governor told reporters.

But lawmakers insist he can’t proceed with the move if they say no.

“No one has ever tested the law to the extent they would question the commission’s decision. I wouldn’t advise starting now,” state Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat and co-chairman of the commission, said in early May right after the move was announced.

State Journal-Register