With Illinois poised to get nearly $9 billion from the federal stimulus bill, state and city officials have been scrambling to compile wish lists of projects ranging from repairs of crumbling highways to deteriorating schools.
With Illinois poised to get nearly $9 billion from the federal stimulus bill, state and city officials have been scrambling to compile wish lists of projects ranging from repairs of crumbling highways to deteriorating schools. But watchdog groups say it’s not the wish lists they have seen that concern them: It’s the ones they haven’t seen. Lists from most state agencies and some cities — most notably Chicago — have been opened to little, if any, public scrutiny — increasing the risk that pork or otherwise tainted projects end up getting funds. "When the IRS audits you, you don’t get to choose whether to be transparent," said John Tillman, head of the Illinois Policy Institute. "And when public officials want your tax money, they shouldn’t be able to deny taxpayers’ transparency." Many cities and counties, as well as at least one state agency, have released detailed lists of projects they hope will eventually receive money through the Obama administration’s $787 billion plan. But there is plenty of reluctance in Illinois — and nationwide — to detail those plans, with some officials arguing it’s still too early in the selection process. Watchdog groups say some officials clearly fear angering constituents if a project on a preliminary wish list is struck from any final list. "But when it’s all done in the smoke-filled rooms and behind closed doors — that’s what feeds public skepticism and that’s what makes people think the fix is in," said Steve Ellis of the Washington-based Taxpayers for Common Sense. Openness is particularly crucial in what Brian Imus, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, said is a historically unique case where so much money will be spent so fast according to legislation drafted so quickly. Under the federal plan, Illinois can expect to pull in billions for everything from repairs of crumbling highways and schools to shoring up unemployment benefits. But while officials have been drawing up lists for weeks, one of the only agencies to disclose details is the Illinois Department of Transportation. Its 32-page, nearly $700 million list is dominated by road-repair projects. Most other agencies have spoken only broadly about how they intend to use stimulus money. Gov. Pat Quinn’s office launched a Web site over the weekend to help Illinoisans track how the state’s share of funds is spent. The site at www.Recovery.Illinois.gov didn’t immediately include previously unreleased wish lists, but Quinn spokesman Bob Reed said it would be a vehicle for agencies to release as much information as they could in coming weeks. "This is part of a rolling process," he said. "The goal is to be absolutely transparent." Some municipalities have been forthcoming already. Dozens of Illinois communities included projects on a 600-page wish list released by the U.S. Conference of Mayors; Moline wanted $6 million for road reconstruction and street work, and Niles asked for $14 million for new fire stations. Notably absent from that list was Chicago. To date, Mayor Richard Daley has held his list close to his vest, suggesting to reporters earlier this month that he doesn’t want to subject specific projects to criticism just yet. "Yes, we do, we have our list, we’ve been talking to people," he said. "We did not put that out publicly because once you start putting it out publicly, you know, the newspapers, the media is going to be ripping it apart." But scrutiny, argues Imus, would play a vital role weeding out unqualified projects. "It’s particularly important in this case precisely because there’s a lot of confusion, even by agencies, about how they can spend this money," he said. "We’ll be doing them a favor by helping sort out the appropriateness of projects." President Obama has invoked a name-and-shame policy when it comes to his stimulus plan, warning local governments he won’t hesitate to call them out if they waste the federal money. But Tillman says Obama should specifically address the hesitancy to release wish lists. "He has declared himself to be the transparent president," he said. "He ought to immediately call on every official who has a list to release them so we can have a public discussion about them." ______ Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.