SPRINGFIELD – An Illinois House committee backed a $100 million plan Wednesday to lure Barack Obama's presidential library to his home state, despite objections from Republicans who welcome the attraction but want no part of taxpayer financing.
House Speaker Michael Madigan said Illinois, which is already home to Abraham Lincoln's library and historic sites, would lose an opportunity to document the 44th president's legacy if it doesn't up the ante in the competition.
"We're talking about a son of Illinois who became president of the United States," Madigan told the Executive Committee before it voted 7-4 on party lines to send the proposal to the floor. "This library and museum will be dedicated to that son of Illinois, and it will become an international tourist attraction."
Obama began his career as a community organizer in Chicago before he took a seat in the Illinois Senate in 1997, stepping up to the U.S. Senate in 2005 and assuming the presidency just four years later. Obama's rise came as two consecutive Illinois governors went to federal prison for corruption – including Rod Blagojevich, in part for trying to sell or trade Obama's vacant congressional seat.
Obama himself has been dogged by association with a contributor who went to prison in the Blagojevich scandal as well as having to continually shake off Chicago's age-old reputation for machine-style politics.
The committee vote was the second in as many weeks, after Republicans complained that the first vote was conducted by Democrats in the fast-and-loose style for which the state has a reputation.
Hawaii, where Obama grew up, and New York, where he went to undergraduate school, are both bidding for the president's papers in a competition for the 14th official presidential library maintained by the National Archives.
The University of Chicago, where Obama once taught constitutional law, Chicago State University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago all offered host sites for the library. Groups from Bronzeville, the historic center of Chicago's black culture, and the site of the former Pullman luxury train-car town, also want in on the action.
"He became our president, and he continued to always keep an eye on Chicago and make sure people knew it was an important place to him," testified Victoria Watkins, a legislative and government affairs aide to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
But Republicans feared the precedent set by the $100 million offer, not to mention that there is no capital construction money available to make good on the overture. Madigan said he is "open" to proposals for new sources of funding to create a new statewide construction program, which could include the library startup costs, to replace a five-year, $31 billion plan that runs dry this year.
"We're not opposed to the library, but we have lots of other needs," said Rep. Ed Sullivan, a Mundelein Republican.
Madigan told Rep. Barbara Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake, that he is unaware of a president inviting competing bids for a library, as Obama's committee has, which she called "disheartening."
"The president has had a wonderful political career, starting with community service, to president, it's been spectacular," Wheeler said, "but he is not unaware of our fiscal situation in the state of Illinois and what a great asset this would be to the city of Chicago."
Gov. Pat Quinn said he would also like to see private funds factored in with state funds.