With one former governor in federal prison and another possibly on his way, prosecutors have argued that Illinois is perhaps the most corrupt state in the nation. Fed up with the scandals, lawmakers are promising changes in the way contractors do business with the Land of Lincoln.

Ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) has pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges.
Photo: AP/Wideworld
Ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) has pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges.

In the wake of scandal and the economic stimulus act, proposals for reform measures are flowing through both chambers of the statehouse in Springfield, Ill. “We haven’t seen the final package yet, but indications are they are comprehensive and far-reaching,” says Rep. Kathleen Ryg (D), who is sponsoring a bill to prioritize transportation projects. Issues under discussion include greater accountability in the bid process, transparency of contracts, public access to information, inclusion and documentation of minority and women-owned enterprises and tighter restrictions on campaign contributions.

Industry supporters say they are encouraged by the buzz. “We’ve struggled too long under this cloud,” says Mike Sturino, president of the Itasca, Ill.-based Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association. “It has made the state less competitive because businesses are hesitant to relocate here, and the public is less willing to support programs because of suspicion of the government.”

Meanwhile, the state is ramping up for increased infrastructure spending. If recently appointed Gov. Patrick Quinn (D) gets his way, the state will see its first capital bill in 10 years. Called Illinois Jobs Now, the $26-billion budget includes $14 billion for roads and bridges and $5 billion for public transit. It will be funded through a combination of state, federal and local funds and fees. Authorization for the first $3 billion came on April 3, when Gov. Quinn signed into law HB-289, also called the “Jump Start Capital Plan” or the “mini-capital bill,” for critical infrastructure improvements.

Illinois also has received $1.6 billion in federal stimulus funds for infrastructure enhancements and repair to existing roads. The contracts were let for so-called shovel-ready projects.

April 3 was the same day ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich, his brother Robert and four others were indicted on federal corruption charges for their fund-raising activities. Among them are two construction executives: roofing contractor Christopher Kelly and William Cellini, head of the Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association. All deny the charges.

As for reforms, two panels are working on recommendations. The Illinois Reform Commission was assembled by Gov. Quinn, and the Joint Commission on Government Reform is made up of state lawmakers. The governor’s office also launched a new Website where people can report wrongdoing, fraud and waste at all levels of state and municipal government.

One legislative proposal gaining bipartisan traction is Ryg’s HB-2359, the Transportation Investment and Accountability Act. The bill advocates forming a new Illinois Transportation Policy Committee that would prioritize capital projects for the Illinois Dept. of Transportation, provide greater transparency for contracts and level opportunities for contractors in different locations.

Not all cleanup efforts are legislated. IDOT is conducting two assessments on its own to develop a risk-management plan. One specifically is aimed at stimulus projects for financing, staffing and contracting public works. Some high-risk areas, such as subrecipient monitoring, already have been identified and a mitigation plan put in place, says Paris Ervin, IDOT communication manager. In addition, Illinois is one of 16 states whose stimulus spending will be audited by the federal government.

“Everyone is keeping a close eye on how money is spent, and that’s the way it should be,” says Daniel Gallagher, president of Thornton, Ill.-based Gallagher Asphalt Corp. and a board member for the National Asphalt Pavement Association. “We don’t want another Bridge to Nowhere kind of thing.”