Panel votes against IDOT move; legal challenge likely next

Doug Finke

Next stop: court.

An hour after the bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability voted unanimously Tuesday against moving 150 state transportation jobs to southeastern Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich said he’s going ahead with it anyway.

That left Springfield officials and state employee unions opposed to the transfer searching for their next move.

“We’re trying to determine if we can take this to court,” said Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield.“We believe we can. There is reason to believe the courts will at least allow an injunction to keep the governor from moving forward.”

Bomke said those talking about legal action include himself, Reps. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, and Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg, and Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin.

Davlin, who attended Tuesday’s COGFA vote, didn’t rule out city involvement in a lawsuit, but he didn’t commit to it, either.

“I think right now it comes down to we’ll wait and see what happens from here,” Davlin said.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees represents about 100 employees at the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Division of Traffic Safety, which Blagojevich wants to move to Harrisburg.

“We certainly will be exploring every option,” said AFSCME deputy director Roberta Lynch. “We don’t know what all of the legal issues are, but we are certainly looking into them.”

Bomke said one avenue being explored among Springfield officials is whether IDOT has the authority to use state gasoline tax money to buy an office building. IDOT plans to purchase half of a former Wal-Mart in Harrisburg to house the traffic safety division. The purchase and renovation are expected to cost at least $1.5 million and will be paid with taxes collected from gasoline sales.

“We believe using the motor fuel tax money for purchase, renovation, relocating employees and purchasing equipment is not a valid use of motor fuel tax money,” Bomke said.

IDOT testified at a hearing last month that it believes it has the legal right to spend gasoline tax money on buildings.

Under state law, COGFA is required to hold public hearings and render an opinion when the state plans to close larger office buildings. However, also under state law, COGFA’s opinions are only advisory and not binding on the administration.

“Looks to me like we’re going to have to go back and work on that law,” said Poe, a member of COGFA. “I think we need to make it binding rather than advisory.”

That view wasn’t shared by other members of the commission.

“It probably is right the way it is now,” said Rep. Robert Molaro, D-Chicago, who voted against the move. “He is the governor. I don’t know if it should be to the point where we take over his job.That may be beyond our purview.”

COGFA co-chairman Sen. Jeff Shoenberg, D-Evanston, said making the commission’s rulings binding would probably run into constitutional separation-of-powers problems.

In voting against the move, COGFA members said IDOT didn’t prove its case that relocating traffic safety will save the state money or help economic development in the Harrisburg area.Although COGFA’s rejection was expected, few thought all 12 members would oppose it.

“As indicated by the vote, the evidence was very compelling that this proposed move was not the right thing to do,” Schoenberg said. “I personally think it would be unwise and contrary to the public’s interest.”

“With all 12 members voting against it, maybe the governor ought to step back and take a look at what he is doing,” Bomke said.

About two dozen traffic safety employees attended Tuesday’s COGFA meeting. They applauded the vote, but realized the issue hasn’t been put to rest.

“I think (Blagojevich) probably will try to go ahead and move it, and then we’ll go through another big battle in the courts,” said Amanda Abeln. “We’re going to lean heavily on legislators to help us stop it. We’re going to lean on our unions quite a bit.”

Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527 ordoug.finke@sj-r.com.