A key Democratic lawmaker leading hearings on the Legionnaires’ disease crisis at the troubled Quincy veterans’ home is raising the prospect that Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed rebuild of the facility may not win legislative approval until after the fall election.
Rauner’s administration this week announced plans to fast-track legislative approval for a $245 million reconstruction of the Illinois Veterans Home before lawmakers adjourn at the end of the month. Since 2015, Legionnaires’ has contributed to the deaths of 13 residents at the home, with outbreaks in each of the last three years and again last winter.
Democratic state Sen. Tom Cullerton, of Villa Park, told WBEZ that he’s prepared immediately to authorize $16 million in spending to buy a vacant nursing home in Quincy that could house elderly veterans. Legislation to do that was filed this week.
But as the clock winds down on this year’s legislative session, Cullerton would not commit to a vote on whether to borrow up to $230 million for an entirely new facility, as Rauner’s task force has recommended.
“I don’t think myself or anybody else in the General Assembly can say that we’re going to trust the governor could be given a $245 million blank check and finish the job correctly,” Cullerton said.
“I don’t have a full timeframe of how it’ll move forward and work out,” Cullerton said.
Rauner’s point person on the Legionnaires’ crisis, Mike Hoffman, said any delay would be a “disappointment” and could jeopardize the entire project.
The outcome carries big political implications for the November elections. If Rauner is successful in persuading the Democratic-led General Assembly to go along with his plan, it would rank as one of his biggest accomplishments in a term bereft of major legislative wins.
But Democrats’ failure to act on a Quincy fix could cut several ways.
They could use Rauner’s inability to secure legislation to replace the aging Quincy facility as a potent symbol of his political ineffectiveness as he squares off against J.B. Pritzker in the fall. If Pritzker wins, Democrats would get to help their party’s newly-minted governor bring a politically popular project across the finish line.
Alternatively, Democrats could include all or part of Rauner’s Quincy plan in a fiscal 2019 budget that includes spending priorities the governor opposes. If the governor were to block a Democratic budget that includes Quincy spending, he’d then be on the hook for killing funding for the project and imperiling veterans’ safety.
On the other hand, if Democrats don’t make a serious effort to address the crisis, Rauner could blame them for putting political considerations ahead of the home’s residents.
For his part, Pritzker, appears to embrace his rival’s plan. When asked by reporters Thursday whether he had any specific qualms about it, he didn’t offer any. Instead, Pritzker urged lawmakers to act on the Quincy project quickly.
Cullerton hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a brand-new veterans’ facility being approved before May 31. But while he’d previously clamored for Rauner to give lawmakers a plan to approve, he’s now warning that uncertainties over how to pay for it and frustration over the proposed five-year timeline could bump negotiations on a fix to the fall legislative session.
“I’d like to get it passed by the end of the month. But I need to know what we’re going to do,” Cullerton said Thursday. He said he still needs to meet with the governor to find out whether the $245 million needs to be borrowed or would come out of state coffers.
“If the bonding and the $245 [million] has to be done in veto session, this $16 million is more than enough to start all the projects and get all of this moving,” Cullerton said.
Hoffman, Rauner’s newly-named point man on the Quincy Legionnaires’ crisis, cautioned that a six-month delay could cause the entire replacement plan to collapse.
“In the past, when the General Assembly has partially approved big capital construction projects, often times, they don’t come to fruition,” Hoffman said in an interview. “They might approve $15 million for the architecture studies or design. And when it comes time to actually move forward on the project, political winds have shifted or fiscal winds have shifted, and the project never gets off the ground. We want to avoid that.”
Still, Hoffman said he’s hopeful that lawmakers “will stick with their word and their public statements” and get a deal done before the end of the month.
“I think a failure to support this proposal — when we actually have it on the table and we’re trying to push it forward — would be a disappointment and let down our veterans today and our veterans who are relying on us tomorrow.”
The plan faces inevitable uncertainty in the Illinois House, where Speaker Michael Madigan holds the gavel. Throughout Rauner’s term, Madigan – the chairman of the state Democratic Party – has been locked in a political struggle with the governor and has strangled much of his legislative agenda.
On this issue, however, a top Madigan aide said the speaker has an open mind and disputed any notion that Democrats have any political incentive in pushing potentially life-saving Quincy improvements down the road.
“I don’t know any Democrats who are thinking that way,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said. “Democrats have been the ones pushing for months now to get a plan to get moving on a solution, and so I think that’s the only intention I’ve seen from any Democrat I know in Illinois.”
Brown, however, offered no guarantees when pressed on whether the speaker is committed to helping pass the entire Quincy package Rauner has floated by month’s end.
“I think that’s being examined. I think the details of what’s involved are shifting a little bit, which is not real surprising. But we’ll do the best we can, sure. We also have to identify how do you pay for a plan of that size,” he said.
Dave McKinney covers state politics for WBEZ. You can follow him at @davemckinney.
Editor’s note: Chicago Public Media receives philanthropic support from The Pritzker Foundation. J.B. Pritzker, who is campaigning for governor as the Democratic candidate, is not involved with the foundation and does not contribute to it.