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Cullerton promises transparency on Senate projects
By John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/15/2009 12:00 AM

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SPRINGFIELD - The new president of the Illinois Senate announced Thursday that all projects for senators that end up in the state budget will be clearly identified and the practice of merely sticking in lump sums for later legislative spending will end.

"Our state's fiscal and ethical crisis demands that we increase transparency and budget accountability. We simply can't afford to continue old habits that veiled the process and use of public funds," Senate President John Cullerton said in a statement sent to media outlets. "I intend to lead my caucus with the philosophy that the use of taxpayer dollars should be subject to taxpayer scrutiny."

Such openness in the state budget process is among the recommendations being put forth by a reform commission appointed by Pat Quinn shortly before he became governor upon Rod Blagojevich's impeachment and ouster from office amid a federal corruption investigation.

"It means everyone can see what's being put in the budget," said state Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat. "No hanky-panky."

Lawmakers have said they hope to start voting on other recommendations next week but as of Thursday were still waiting for the final legislative language on the plans. The commission, led by former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins, has called for limits on campaign donations, overhauling the state's redistricting process, creating a state contracting czar independent of the governor and lawmakers, empowering local prosecutors with newfound ability to eavesdrop and wiretap and limiting how long legislative leaders can remain their posts.

Cullerton is in the initial months of his Senate presidency, taking over after the retirement of Chicago Democrat Emil Jones Jr. In recent years, large sums of money for lawmaker projects had been set aside in the budget for the later release by leaders such as Jones.

The practice was the subject of a lawsuit that sought to force Jones and then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to disclose how the money was being spent. During 2007-2008, Senate Democrats under Jones and Blagojevich had $18.7 million worth of projects.

Cullerton settled the lawsuit and last month turned over a list of the projects Senate Democrats had sought. In response, the group Judicial Watch dropped the lawsuit.