The $40,000 in the state budget for the Springfield Figure Skating Club was placed there by a member of the Illinois House GOP leadership team who doesn’t live in the capital city.


The $40,000 in the state budget for the Springfield Figure Skating Club was placed there by a member of the Illinois House GOP leadership team who doesn’t live in the capital city.

Rep. RON STEPHENS of Greenville, an assistant Republican leader in the House, said he proudly advocates the programs the funding could provide. He said he sought the grant after being contacted by LISA STEELMAN, a skater’s mom who leads fund-raising for the Springfield club.

The club’s funds were spared by Gov. ROD BLAGOJEVICH’s veto pen.

“I asked her what they intend to use the money for, and they’re doing outreach to kids who probably wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate in a skating program,” including children with disabilities who would be contacted through Special Olympics, Stephens said. “(It) sounded like a great program for Springfield, and I was happy, proud, to put their request in.”

Stephens said he’s known Steelman, a lobbyist for Novartis Pharmaceuticals, since she was growing up in Highland in his district, and he’s known her parents as well. Her current job makes her familiar with the Statehouse, but Stephens said that job had nothing to do with her seeking funds for the skating group.

“This was a request that she made as a parent active in a good cause,” he said. “It’s going to help children that would not otherwise be served.”

The paragraph in the state budget that calls for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to provide the skating group up to $40,000 for “costs associated with youth programs” has gotten attention because it was spared when Blagojevich used his line-item veto power to slash more than $460 million from the $59 billion spending plan sent to him by the General Assembly. The governor did excise millions of dollars for programs for health care and veterans and other good causes.

TERESA CHESSARE, president of the figure skating club, estimates the group has 145 members. She said the controversy has been odd.

“We’re a small group,” Chessare said. “We’re trying to do some good programs. … It just kind of blew into way more than we planned.”

Chessare said that at a fund-raising meeting early this year, club members decided to solicit private and public donations for a variety of program ideas. Generally, they want to provide either group instruction or pay for skating lessons for kids from groups such as the Special Olympics, Boy Scouts, Girl Scoutes, and Big Brother/Big Sister. Some of the money also could be used to help with youth programs within the club.

Chessare said she considers her group “very lucky” to have the funding remain in the state budget, but she doesn’t see the skating grant as being in competition with other items cut from the budget.

The club is waiting to implement the new programs until the money comes through, she said.

The fact that the $40,000 stayed in the budget fits Blagojevich’s veto pattern. The Democratic governor generally allowed projects sponsored by Senate Democrats and House Republicans to stay in place. Projects boosted by House Democrats and Senate Republicans generally got vetoed.

In the budget sent to the governor, each House member got about $650,000 to designate for projects. Those projects were spelled out in the budget document, which is why the skating club’s money has become an issue. Senate members each got about $1.3 million in projects.

Stephens, like Chessare, said he doesn’t look at the skating club’s grant as competing with items cut out of the budget. Stephens said he thinks the General Assembly should restore all the items cut by the governor.

He also said his district got a full $650,000 in projects, mostly for roads and bridges. He said he did put in $20,000 for improvements to the American Farm Heritage Museum along Interstate 70 in Bond County.

“It’s becoming nationally known,” he said. “I’m pleased to give them some small support.”

He said he thinks his constituents will understand his help for the Springfield club.

“I think helping, among others, disabled children and special needs children – my goodness,” Stephens said. “If the state can’t spare $40,000 for a cause like that, there’s something wrong with us.”

Stephens also stressed that there was nothing secret about the skating club grant.

“I am absolutely proud to be associated with this,” he said.

Stephens said he thinks the governor should have cut any spending from the budget that he didn’t agree with.

“If he’s playing political games, I’m not,” Stephens said. “I have every intention of those dollars being spent.”

I’ve reported before that the governor’s oldest daughter, AMY, is a figure skater. However, while she has skated at the Nelson Center at Lincoln Park in Springfield, she paid for the time, as would any other skater.

“Just like at Amy’s home rink, anyone can skate during package ice time as long as they are skating at a certain ability level and they buy a coupon,” said REBECCA RAUSCH, spokeswoman for the governor. “The schedule of when Amy could skate was sent to Mrs. Blagojevich by the director of the center.”

The center is run by the Springfield Park District. Chessare said Amy Blagojevich is not a member of the Springfield club.

The club’s parent base does sport another name known in state government – SERGIO MOLINA, a former spokesman for the Department of Corrections who is now executive assistant to the director of that department.

While he’s listed on a club Web site as doing public relations for the club, he said that was for a recent Spotlight on Ice show. Molina said he had nothing to do with the $40,000 working its way into the state budget.



SUBHEAD



JILL BURWITZ, a one-time WICS-TV reporter who this summer started a job as a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Transportation, is no longer with the state.

“Jill doesn’t work for the office anymore,” said CHRIS HERBERT, senior communications manager for the Illinois Office of Communication and Information, which houses spokespeople for state agencies under the governor.

Burwitz got the $63,360 CMS job speaking for IDOT after a stint on contract as spokeswoman for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. However, after her IDOT job started, it came to light that she had a pending DeWitt County charge of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Burwitz, 34, of Pawnee, claimed she hadn’t been drinking but refused a breath-alcohol test. She has since been granted a judicial driving permit, according to the DeWitt County circuit clerk’s office. The case is still pending.

Meanwhile, ANDREW ROSS, 38, of Chicago, has left his $96,000 job as spokesman for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Ross, who had been with the state since late 2003, has taken a job with VOX Global Mandate, a Fleishman-Hillard company, where he will be a vice president in Chicago and serve as a public affairs manager for AT&T Illinois.

Herbert said Ross’ position will be filled. Depending on the candidates, the new person could work in either Springfield or Chicago. The other two DCEO spokespeople both are from Chicago. MARK HARRIS, 28 this weekend, spends all his time with DCEO issues. MICA MATSOFF, 30, splits her time between DCEO and the Illinois Department of Employment Security.



OOPS

Dr. MICHAEL HENRY died in 2004. He was president of FitClub at the time. By misreading an old article, I got the year of his death wrong in a recent column. I also got his title wrong. My apologies.



Bernard Schoenburg is political columnist for The State Journal-Register. He can be reached at (217) 788-1540 or bernard.schoenburg@sj-r.com.