The Illinois Senate quietly approved a bill this spring that would have steered the proposed third airport down a path of pay-to-play politics – and certain doom.
I know, because Antoin “Tony” Rezko attempted to lead Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. down that same path two years ago – a proposal Jackson flatly rejected.
Pay-to-play was the pathway laid out in Senate Bill 2063, sponsored by state Sen. Debbie Halvorson. That bill would have codified what Rezko essentially proposed to Jackson, ALNAC and its developers (SNC-Lavalin and LCOR), which was to create an airport board comprised of appointed – not elected – commissioners.
These non-elected insiders would have enormous powers to control the project – including eminent domain, condemnation, taxation, and contracts galore – yet they’d stand accountable to no one.
Rezko, of course, is the governor’s former cloutmeister who was convicted Wednesday on 16 of 24 counts in federal court for selling seats on state boards to the highest bidder.
Two years ago – before Rezko’s indictment and trial – the Congressman and I (as executive director of the Abraham Lincoln National Airport Commission) were invited to meet with state officials about the third airport, a project we’ve championed for 14 years.
At the time, the governor was running for re-election and facing angry south suburban leaders who were running a massive ad campaign criticizing Blagojevich for reneging on his promise to build the airport.
Feeling heat from his voter base, the governor agreed to have two of his top aides meet with Jackson and ALNAC.
At the last minute, however, there was a change of plans. Instead of meeting with the Governor’s aides, we would be meeting with Tony Rezko.
So, on Sunday, June 25, 2006, at the Chicago Four Seasons Hotel, Rezko showed up by himself. He said he could offer gubernatorial support for ALNAC’s airport plan – if the governor were allowed to make key appointments to ALNAC’s Board.
In essence, Rezko wanted to turn ALNAC into one of those state panels controlled by unaccountable pay-to-play ringleaders like Rezko and Stuart Levine.
When Jackson and ALNAC quickly rejected Rezko’s offer, they didn’t realize it would be their last official meeting with the state on the airport. A few weeks later, Levine and Rezko were charged in a massive federal corruption case.
The Governor says this isn’t the way he does business, and we take the Governor at his word that he did not know about the Rezko airport plan.
But Rezko’s proposal wasn’t dead. Senate Bill 2063 attempted to revive the Rezko model by giving non-elected appointees unprecedented political power through pay-to-play donors.
By comparison, ALNAC is made up entirely of elected officials from home-rule municipalities, all bound by state ethics laws. ALNAC has been endorsed by 37 communities representing 400,000 Will, Cook and Kankakee citizens, and its board was approved by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who said the airport does not require legislative approval.
Beyond the issue of accountability, the Senate bill would have allowed the airport board to award jobs and contracts to the highest bidder – thus driving up construction and operational costs, and alienating potential private investors such as global airport experts like LCOR and SNC-Lavalin.
ALNAC’s model for building the airport comes with built-in accountability and ethics designed specifically to eliminate kickbacks and graft, thus creating 15,000 private-sector jobs at a low-cost airport that will attract low-cost carriers during this challenging economy.
Rezko’s model and the Senate bill would turn ALNAC’s innovative plan to construct a privately funded, publicly accountable, low-cost airport into a taxpayer-funded, pay-to-play, high-cost airport.
Fortunately, Senate Bill 2063 died in the Illinois House. But it remains an example of how good ideas – like wayward politicians – get imprisoned.
Rick Bryant is Executive Director, Abraham Lincoln National Airport Commission (ALNAC)