In cash-strapped Illinois, $100 million is serious money -- especially for Republicans being asked to spend it on a shrine to President Barack Obama.
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, is pushing the taxpayer funding to help pay for a potential presidential library in Chicago to honor Obama. Republican legislators are saying not so fast, given the state’s financial straits.
Chicago, New York and Honolulu -- all cities where Obama spent important parts of his life -- are competing to host the library that will open sometime after the U.S.’s 44th president leaves office in January 2017. Madigan and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first White House chief of staff, have said state money is needed to help Chicago compete.
“The debate isn’t about whether it would be a good thing for the library to be in Illinois,” said Representative Tom Demmer, a Republican from north-central Illinois. “It’s about whether or not it is appropriate for the state to commit $100 million to build it. I just don’t think it matches up with the priorities of the state right now.”
Illinois is home to the nation’s worst-funded state pension system, and it has almost $7 billion in unpaid bills.
An Illinois House committee yesterday passed a bill on a party-line vote to provide $100 million for the library, advancing the proposal to the full chamber. Both the House and state Senate have Democratic majorities.
Republicans say Madigan is trying to create an issue for November’s election, when the governorship and most other state offices are at stake, because opposition could especially anger black voters. Exit polls show that blacks represented a fifth of the state’s electorate in the comparable vote four years ago.
Private money will finance most of the cost of erecting Obama’s library, and perhaps all of it, if the Illinois proposal fails. Presidential libraries have typically been built with private funds before being turned over to the National Archives for operation. Their cost has grown over the years, reflecting inflation and the increasing grandeur of their designs.
More than $500 million in private money was raised for the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas before its opening a year ago. The library at Southern Methodist University and an affiliated institute includes a 226,000-square-foot (20,996-square-meter) building and 15-acre (6-hectare) park.
The home for a library is among the considerations facing the Barack H. Obama Foundation, created in January to start the fundraising and logistical work.
Obama grew up in Honolulu, graduated from Columbia University in New York and spent most of his career in Chicago.
Olivia Alair, a foundation spokeswoman, declined to comment when asked about the potential use of public dollars.
The possible use of state money to help build Obama’s library has drawn criticism from the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune, the state’s largest newspaper.
“This state has no money to be devoting to a presidential library,” the newspaper said in an April 21 editorial. “Obama’s library should be funded the same way most presidential libraries during the last century have been funded: with private money.”
Steve Brown, a Madigan spokesman, said most of the modern libraries have been placed on public land or granted low-cost, long-term leases. “The fallacy is that there’s not public money for these facilities,” he said.
The committee’s action yesterday “sets down a strong marker by the state” that it’s committed to trying to woo the project to Chicago, Brown said. The speaker wants the funding to be included in a multiyear, state construction package now under debate, he said.
Emanuel has called the state money a “unique investment in the city’s cultural attractions and educational attractions” that will pay dividends far beyond the $100 million. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat facing a tough re-election challenge this year, echoed that sentiment earlier this week.
The library would be an “economic magnet” that would “create thousands of jobs,” he told reporters.
Quinn also said the any financial commitment by the state “would have to be accompanied by very extensive private fund-raising.”
Previously opened presidential libraries have brought with them millions of dollars in economic development. The William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum’s opening in Little Rock in 2004 was followed by office buildings, hotels and restaurants.
More than 2.3 million people visited official presidential libraries in fiscal year 2013, according to a National Archives and Records Administration report. Exhibit and museum attendance that year ranged from a high of 426,344 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, to a low of 53,048 at the Jimmy Carter Library & Museum in Atlanta.
Illinois could use the economic boost. Its unemployment rate in March was 8.4 percent, well above the national average of 6.7 percent and surpassed among the other 49 states by only Rhode Island and Nevada.
Quinn and Madigan, in making the proposal to help fund the Obama facility, have pointed to the roughly $100 million in state money spent on the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. That library, opened in 2005, honors the life of the state’s first resident to be elected president.
“You don’t have Lincoln’s friends and family any longer who could raise money,” said Representative Ed Sullivan, a Republican from suburban Chicago. “It’s apples and oranges.”
Sullivan said Obama, 52, is a “prolific fundraiser,” who with Democratic allies raised more than $1 billion for his 2012 re-election campaign. Sullivan pledged to personally contribute to the project, if public funds aren’t used.
State Senator Matt Murphy, another Republican from suburban Chicago, said Madigan’s push for the public money has more to do with “racial and partisan” politics than economic development.
“He is showing a fear that his base isn’t going to come out in this election,” Murphy said. “They are trying to gin up the usual wedge issues.”
Brown said politics are also playing a role on the Republican side.
“The Tea Party gene has kicked in,” he said in a reference to the national limited-government movement. “Anything that has the Obama name, the Tea Party wants to object to.”
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