Illinois shelving $100M gift to Obama library

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — A plan to offer $100 million in tax dollars to lure Barack Obama’s presidential library to Illinois is on the shelf, as lawmakers wrapped up their spring session without advancing the idea.

Democrats in the president’s home state pushed the proposal to compete against rival bids from Hawaii and New York. But it faced opposition from Republicans wary of an expensive and precedent-setting gift — with no immediately identified funding source — for a mostly private endeavor when the state faces serious financial difficulties.

Not all Democrats were on board either. Both the Democratic-controlled House and Senate adjourned without calling for any final votes on the measure.

“It wasn’t clear that a state monetary incentive was necessary for a successful (library) proposal,” said Rikeesha Phelon, a spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat.

Sponsors of the measure vowed to continue their advocacy, but the initiative now must wait despite a June 16 deadline for host proposals to Obama’s library commission.

The state’s influential House speaker, Michael Madigan, who doubles as state Democratic Party chairman, had hoped the library plan would be part of a multibillion-dollar replacement for a five-year statewide construction plan that is expiring. But that larger bricks-and-mortar program also got no traction as lawmakers patched together a 2015 state budget without extending a temporary income tax increase, as Democrats had sought.

Obama was a community organizer in Chicago before he was elected to the Illinois and U.S. Senates. He grew up in Hawaii and went to college in New York, spurring those states to compete for hosting Obama’s legacy.

“In order to show him we’re serious about wanting him in Illinois, we have to do the right thing,” said Illinois state Rep. Monique Davis, a Chicago Democrat and Madigan’s co-sponsor. “We must put forth some good-faith effort.”

Even without approval of a capital plan, Davis wanted a vote before the House adjourned to send a supportive message ahead of the commission’s application deadline. She said she will continue pushing the idea this fall when lawmakers return to Springfield.

Republicans say they welcome the library and the tourists it would attract. But they pointed out that no library dedicated to a modern president received state or federal tax dollars — although Democrats point out public assistance is often offered, such as donated land.

“Bush and Clinton both raised over $200 million in private funds to take care of their library,” said Rep. Joe Sosnowksi, a Rockford Republican. Obama’s “ability to raise that amount and more is without question. For us to chip in half of what a presidential library would cost is an abuse of the taxpayers.”

Madigan cited as precedent the public funding of another presidential library — that of the Prairie State’s other favored son, Abraham Lincoln. That $155 million Springfield showplace was financed with $115 million in state tax money and $32 million in federal money.

But Lincoln’s repository is not an official presidential library maintained by the National Archives Record Administration, which has been devoted to presidential facilities beginning with Herbert Hoover.

George Washington’s library at Mount Vernon in northern Virginia operates on private donations, spokeswoman Melissa Wood said, as does the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton, Virginia, according to library representative Robert Robinson. Like the Lincoln site, Robinson said the Calvin Coolidge library in Massachusetts is state-run.

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