SPRINGFIELD — The latest political power play at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum comes from Speaker Michael Madigan, who is pushing a plan to set up the center as a free-standing state agency despite opponents’ concerns it would become a patronage haven.
With the budget still unsettled and less than a week until adjournment, the Democratic speaker used the Memorial Day session to move through a committee a plan that would make the library and museum more independent of Gov. Pat Quinn. The speaker’s bill would remove the library from under the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. The Quinn administration was largely silent on the issue, but estimated the cost for the switch would be $2.4 million at a time when other historic sites are considered for closure because of the state’s budget crunch.
Madigan’s proposal could benefit some of his friends. The Springfield presidential museum is run by Eileen Mackevich, a Madigan friend. Madigan confirmed she is a longtime acquaintance of Stanley Balzekas, whose family runs the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture. Madigan acknowledged his Southwest Side office is at the same 13th Ward address as the museum, and that Balzekas is the landlord.
“Yeah. Yeah. Yeah,” said Madigan, who noted Balzekas is an “eminent Lithuanian American.”
The speaker said “no” when asked if his friendships with Balzekas and Mackevich played any role in the decision to try to separate the Lincoln library and museum from the Quinn administration, pointing instead to what he said were operational problems with the current set-up.
Republican Gov. George Ryan, who put his name on the library’s cornerstone before going to prison, suffered setbacks as he tried to turn the center into a major political playpen for top loyalists. The administration of imprisoned Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich came under scrutiny over allegations of patronage abuse at the historic preservation agency.
The museum has provided other moments of awkward publicity over the years. Paintings that featured Lincoln and other 19th century scenes also included modern-day figures as Republican powerbroker Bill Cellini, a longtime Republican who went to prison in the Blagojevich scandal. Wife Julie Cellini, a longtime driving influence behind construction of the complex, also is in a portrait.
Madigan, who doubles as the Illinois Democratic Party chairman, maintained he “wouldn’t expect” a separate Lincoln agency to be turned into a political landing zone for his own partisan pals. Asked if he had anyone in mind for the top spot at the Lincoln agency, Madigan referenced Mackevich, saying, “There’s an executive director there today.”
The speaker said that under the bill, a new board would choose the executive director.
The bill went to the full House on a 10-1 vote. The only lawmaker who voted against the proposal, Republican Rep. Joe Sosnowski of Rockford, questioned the speaker about how the proposal would impact the library and museum as well as the multiple vacant staff and research positions.
In other action Monday, a House panel voted 7-4 to advance a measure that would speed up the start of “fracking” in southern and central Illinois — a process that extracts oil and natural gas by pressuring it out of the ground. Sponsoring Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, said the bill still contains strong environmental protections, but a citizens group is seeking to block the bill so that current checks and balances can play out.
On the budget, Madigan said the goal before week’s end is to reach a satisfactory spending plan without extending an income tax hike. The personal rate is scheduled to drop from 5 percent to 3.75 percent on Jan. 1.