A statehouse Republican is applauding the recent decision to honor prevailing wage and bidding rules typically followed by publicly funded projects during the privately funded renovation of Illinois' historic Executive Mansion.
"Symbols are very important," state Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Decatur, said. "I think bidding a project of this scope out sends a good signal at a time when Illinois is so deeply polarized."
In late July, the nonprofit Illinois Executive Mansion Association (IEMA)-- dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the 161-year-old residence and chaired by Illinois First Lady Diana Rauner -- agreed to the scope of the new restoration plan with the Capital Development Board (CDB), which manages state capital improvement projects.
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A memo of understanding between the two parties, obtained by the State Journal-Register newspaper through a Freedom of Information Act request, said the mansion association explicitly required the restoration to comply with all standards and procedures applied to projects managed by the CDB, including the Prevailing Wage Act and other legislation covering historic preservation, engineering, architecture, accessibility for the disabled and all other common building codes.
IEMA spokesman Max Bever confirmed the agreement through an emailed statement that read in part: "The Illinois Executive Mansion Association made the decision to engage general contractors and subcontractors who pay the prevailing wage. As part of a Memorandum of Understanding, the Illinois Capital Development Board agreed to serve as the repository of the payment records required under the Prevailing Wage Act."
The association already had said the $16 million restorations will not use any taxpayer-generated funds, but rely solely on private donations, thanks to a 2014 state law that permits the CDB to accept "gifts" that stipulate the acquisition of a certain good or service or the use of a specific vendor, as long as the donations provide most of the funding for the associated contracts.
Similar efforts by Gov. Bruce Rauner to shift traditional state functions to providers in the private sector have been met with resistance from Democratic state lawmakers and labor union representatives who suspect that avoiding existing labor laws and weakening unions are the real goals behind the push toward privatization.
Mitchell said the restoration project shows that the governor is, in fact, open to working with those on the other side of the aisle and resolving Illinois' fiscal problems.
"The governor (has) recognized and has shown that he's willing to compromise. We should look at the positives of the situation," Mitchell said. "This was a wise decision. I happen to personally support a prevailing wage. I think the governor and the first lady made the correct call, and I think it could be a step in the right direction, in terms of finding some compromise to get out of this fiscal morass that we're in."
The mansion-restoration fundraising campaign led by the Rauners was launched in May, and by July, it had collected $4.5 million, the State Journal-Register said. The IEMA plans to complete the restoration by August 2018, when Illinois marks its 200th anniversary as a state.
The last major renovation of the Executive Mansion -- the oldest governor's residence in the Midwest, the third-oldest in the U.S. and the place the Rauners call home -- took place from 1970 to 1972.
"The work is absolutely necessary because this is the people's house," Mitchell said. "Illinois is a wonderful, great state, and to have a decaying mansion, along with the rest of the fiscal health of the state, just doesn't send a good signal...it's work that needs to be done."