February 12, 2019
Nearly two years after it was filed in the Illinois General Assembly, a bill making it easier for the State to sell the James R. Thompson Center has finally landed on the Governor’s desk.
In the meantime, one session of the legislature has ended and a new one has begun. Governor Bruce Rauner, who was in office when the legislation was introduced, has been succeeded by Governor JB Pritzker.
Senate Bill 886, as amended, was filed during the 100th General Assembly on May 29, 2017. The bill, which eases procedural requirements to sell the State’s biggest office building in Chicago, was passed by the House on May 29, 2017 and by the Senate two days later. But it was held by the Senate President under a parliamentary technique called a motion to reconsider and never sent to then Governor Bruce Rauner.
On January 9, 2019, the last day of the 100th General Assembly, Senate President John Cullerton lifted the motion to reconsider. Governor Pritzker, was sworn in on January 14. Senate Bill 886 was sent to Governor Pritzker on February 7, according to the General Assembly’s website.
Prospects for the sale remain unclear. During the gubernatorial campaign in 2018, then candidate Pritzker said he supported selling the Thompson Center. However, the new Governor has not said specifically whether he would sign the legislation. Even if the legislation is enacted, the timing and price of any sale are not certain.
On WTTW’s Chicago Tonight on February 12, 2019, Deputy Governor Dan Hynes said the Pritzker administration wants to sell the Thompson Center because it is in poor condition and the property could be put to better use. However, he also said revenues from selling the building would not be used to balance the budget. Instead, sale proceeds would be used to help reduce unfunded pension liabilities or pay down the backlog of unpaid bills.
The Civic Federation has warned against using revenues from asset sales to cover operating expenses. One-time revenues such as proceeds from asset sales are not part of the State’s ongoing tax base and are not available for spending in subsequent years.
The Thompson Center sale has been a feature of State budget discussions for the past three years. Governor Rauner strongly advocated disposing of the building, describing it as inefficient, underutilized and in need of $100 million in repairs. The sale was proposed in three of Governor Rauner’s recommended budgets.
Despite some initial disagreements with the City of Chicago over zoning and preservation of the Chicago Transit Authority station located on the site, all parties claimed to be in favor of the sale by June 2017. However, the State was still mired in a two-year budget impasse, the result of a political struggle between the Republican Governor and Democratic legislators who control the General Assembly.
The deadlock ended in July 2017, when the legislature enacted a budget for FY2018 over Governor Rauner’s veto. The General Assembly’s budget included revenue from the sale of the Thompson Center, but Senate Bill 886 continued to be held in the Senate.
Similarly, the FY2019 budget passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Rauner included proceeds of $270 million, net of expenses, from a Thompson Center sale. But the potential sale was eliminated from the November 2018 budget forecast by Governor Rauner’s administration, contributing to a projected FY2019 deficit of up to $1 billion.
The bill that was finally sent to Governor Pritzker in February 2019 removes procedural requirements to allow for a more flexible negotiations with potential buyers of the 34-year-old Thompson Center. It also provides assurances to the City of Chicago regarding zoning changes and continued operation of the Clark/Lake CTA station. Finally, it designates office space for the State’s constitutional officers in a neighboring state-owned building.
This is not the only time a bill has been held for a subsequent Governor’s signature. House Bill 337, which required licensing of gun dealerships, was held from May 31, 2018 until January 8, 2019, after which it was signed into law by newly inaugurated Governor Pritzker. The political reasons for holding that bill seemed more obvious: Governor Rauner had vetoed a similar bill the year before. Opponents of the bill have questioned the legality of the maneuver.