I-Team Report: Operation Statehouse

September 21, 2011 (CHICAGO)

Officially the $150-million project is for new heating and air conditioning, but the I-Teams has discovered more than a few other things buried in the budget.

As we all know, Illinois is suffering from a painful, slow economic illness. The state has 149,000 unpaid bills totaling nearly $4 billion.

Usually when the patient is so sick, cosmetic surgery is the last thing on anyone's mind, but as state finances droop and sag, the center of Illinois government is getting a facelift.

The seat of Illinois government, for nearly 125 years home to legislative sessions and the workplace for state leaders, is being overhauled.

"On paper, it's called an HVAC project - for everyone else, it's called a west wing renovation," said Architect of the Capitol Richard Alsop.

The west wing renovation began as a project to replace HVAC - the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system at the capitol. Now, it is expanding beyond just ductwork.

Even though an audit at the end of 2010 showed Illinois was the most broke state in the union, the plans have the capitol undergoing a multi-million-dollar renovation.

"When you know there's some buried treasure out there, you kind of work at it," said House Speaker Michael Madigan's spokesman Steve Brown.

Brown, a history buff and the spokesman for the powerful house speaker, has adopted this project and took us for a tour.

"I think there's a renewed pride in terms of making sure this building looks as close to its original condition as possible," said Brown.

"I think what we are doing now in the west wing is what I call right size - we have right sized the project," said Alsop.

According to the capitol architect, existing chandeliers will be taken down and refurbished and some will be replaced with brand new copies.

There is a whole section describing "extensive decorative painting," where contractors will scrape off the old interior paint, find original murals, and repaint them, much like some presidential portraits found during the first round of renovations.

"I can show you places in the building where things were done on kind of a schlocky basis before... I think there's an attitude here now... if you're going to renovate this building and keep it, you're going to restore it to its original condition," said Brown.

There are line items for gilding and new electronic window shades. Mahogany desks, bronze handrails, and decorative iron grates will be installed. The restrooms will be redone, adding stone partitions to divide the toilets - and new Italian marble will be put in.

The renovation includes all-new kitchen equipment, including a sandwich refrigerator, rotary toaster, pizza cabinet, and sneeze guards.

Finally, brand new historic looking exit signs will light the way out.

All told, renovating the west wing of the capitol building will cost nearly $42 million. In total, the full HVAC project will cost more than $150 million.

The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform says when the state is having trouble paying its bills, renovating the entire capitol instead of fixing just what is necessary sends the wrong message.

"Jobs could be saved, jobs could be created with this amount of money," said Brian Gladstein of the Campaign for Political Reform. "If there's a question about there about money being used to fix up their own house and not fix up the state, I think that people should be asking questions."

"Why now? Is this what we need at this moment?" said Gladstein.

There are required renovations: dropping the floor in the basement to satisfy American Disabilities Act requirements, and putting in a new staircase for fire code.

Funding for the project is through the Illinois capital plan designed to create jobs in Illinois, and state officials emphasize that capital improvement money cannot be used to fix the budget hole.

"I think if you tried to wait until all of the expenditures that people would like to see made for programs and services were met to their full expectations you'd probably never be able to start a project like this," said Brown.

Some state programs are already being eliminated, and this month Governor Pat Quinn said almost 2,000 state workers will be laid off with more cuts possible - while Operation Statehouse marches forward.

Quinn's office released funding for the latest phase of the project a few days ago.

According to a spokesman for the Capital Development Board, the exact breakdown of how much of the renovation will be for heating, cooling and mandated changes compared to more cosmetic upgrades will not be available for a few weeks.

Copyright © 2021 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.