May 26, 2009

A Green Capital Bill? - Not Yet

Legislators are understandably celebrating the passage of a major state capital spending bill last week (although no dollars get raised or spent until Gov. Quinn signs the bill, which appears linked to closing the gaping hole in the state's operating budget).

The capital spending bill approved by the General Assembly makes some significant new investments in the environment, but it falls short, in several crucial areas, of being the "green capital bill" that Governor Quinn has repeatedly called for, and that both the House and Senate have expressed unanimous support for earlier this Spring. This week is a great opportunity to make it a capital plan that not only creates good jobs today, but makes Illinois a cleaner, greener, healthier place to live now and for future generations.

Last week the legislature sent Gov. Quinn a bill raising a series of taxes and fees sufficient to fund $12 billion in public works projects, but so far has only appropriated $10.44 billion. On the agenda for this week in Springfield is spending the remaining $1.55 billion (in addition to closing the gaping hole in the operating budget, ethics reform, and myriad other topics.)

There are two crucial areas that are ignored in the spending plan approved last week that should be a top priority when deciding how to spend the remaining $1.55 billion. The first is open space land acquisition. As passed last week, this would be the first capital plan in decades to ignore conservation. Illinois FIRST, the last major capital plan, passed in 1999, provided $200 million in funds for IDNR to expand our parks and recreation areas, and matching grants to local governments. Build Illinois before that, during the Thompson years, also made substantial funding available to expand and improve our park system. IDNR estimates that at least $2 billion is needed to protect lands for conservation and recreation. By funding the Illinois Open Land Trust with $200 million, the General Assembly can make sure this capital bill, like those before it, will pay dividends for many generations of future Illinoisans.

A second major opportunity is high-speed rail. Governor Quinn has called for $400 million for bringing high-speed trains to Illinois. These funds would match federal stimulus funds, and finally bring modern rail travel to Illinois, giving travellers fast, reliable, low-carbon options for getting around our state and the midwest.

The capital bill passed last week did not entirely ignore the environment. The bill funds transit and conventional Amtrak trains at a much more favorable ratio to road construction than ever before. It does provide $110 million for clean water projects, $75 million to clean up leaking underground storage tanks, $30 million for brownfields redevelopment, $45 million for Illinois River projects. These are critical needs, but are not a major priority in a $12 billion overall program.

Depending on how it's done, the infrastructure spending in the bill could advance Illinois' energy and environmental goals. There will be a lot of roads and buildings built or rebuilt with these dollars, and we would all be better served if all of these projects are done in a way to maximize energy efficiency and minimize air and water pollution. We can guarantee these benefits if green construction requirements are included in the fine print.

Gov. Quinn and the General Assembly have a chance to fix that this week by investing in the future. We should expect no less with our tax dollars.

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