Illinois can't afford Barack Obama's presidential library

Chicago is where Barack Obama's presidential library and museum should be. Nowhere else comes close to making a legitimate claim.

Hawaii, Obama's native state? Columbia University in New York City where he pursued his undergraduate degree?

Not even close.

Only Chicago and Illinois could have spawned the Barack Obama who today sits in the Oval Office. From his early days as a South Side community organizer, to his formative years as a young attorney, to his days of lecturing about the Constitution at the University of Chicago, to meeting his wife and fostering his family, to fashioning a political career, Chicago and Illinois have an unmatched claim to the library.

Even those who don't like the president have to agree: This is where he learned the kind of politics that propelled him from a fledgling in the Illinois legislature in a few short years into the White House. Barack Obama is the embodiment of the "Chicago Way."

The only question is where should the library be located?

What isn't in question is the source of its funding. It must not come from the taxpayers.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan's recent call for the state to put up $100 million to help land the library should be a nonstarter. His audacity in seeking that kind of money from a near-bankrupt state is breathtaking.

We taxpayers already are in hock for at least $100 billion in unfunded pension benefits for public employees. The state's backlog of unpaid bills exceeds $7 billion. Illinois' credit rating is the worst of the 50 states. The "temporary" income tax increases that took effect in 2011 are scheduled to begin to phase out in January 2015, resulting in an 8.7 percent reduction in income tax revenues next year, according to a Civic Federation estimate.

Madigan has introduced, with Rep. Monique Davis, D-Chicago, a bill that appropriates $100 million from the Capital Development Fund to be used by the Illinois Capital Development Board to build the library and museum. The board oversees the construction of new state facilities, such as prisons, university classrooms, mental health hospitals and state parks. The sketchy legislation is silent about how the $100 million would be funded, and a variety of complex options are available, including the sale of bonds that are backed by the state's "full faith and credit" (not worth much at the moment) or by a specific source of revenues, such as taxes, tolls or user fees. (Perhaps library admission tickets?) How such financing would affect other badly needed state capital projects is yet to be seen, and should be a matter of open, clear and serious debate.

Even with the $100 million, the prospect of raising the library's estimated (staggering) cost of $500 million is daunting. Maybe George Soros, the billionaire who is so dedicated to many liberal causes, would step up. Or Chicago mogul Penny Pritzker, Obama's longtime friend and commerce secretary, might reach into her stash. And there is the much-ballyhooed ability of the Obama campaign to raise megamillions from $5 givers, who would only be too glad to chip in to memorialize their hero's legacy.

The state is in such awful financial shape that even the fiscally conservative Civic Federation has proposed extending the higher income taxes for another year and then gradually rolling them back over the next three years. The group's five-year plan also would "restrain spending to pay down the backlog of bills and gradually reduce income tax rates by 20 percent, while broadening the tax base and building a reserve fund as a cushion against future economic downturns."

With the public employee unions fighting to kill the modest pension reform that's not enough to pull the state back from the brink and nothing much better on the horizon to restore the state's fiscal health, the most charitable thing to be said about Madigan's proposal is that it is ill-timed.

Ultimately, the library's location is the president's decision, with the advice of the archivist of the United States. It will be a test of Obama's loyalty to the city and state that bestowed so many blessings upon him.

This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

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  • You may be on to something in suggesting Illinois taxpayers' money should not be used for an Obama Presidential Library and Museum. The state could also make some money to pay its debts by selling off the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. Think of the theme park Disney could develop by combining the museum with Lincoln's New Salem State Park nearby! In the same spirit, any discussion of using taxpayers' money to develop the Ronald Reagan Boyhood home corridor in the Dixon area should be discouraged.
    After all, what is more important, getting that income tax cut or recognizing the state's heritage?

  • What's the big deal. All that will be in the Obama Library will be his two books and the 39 videos of Obama saying that you can keep your doctor and healthcare. A small corner in a Hyde Park coffee shop should do it.

  • Aren't all presidential libraries independently funded?

  • In reply to Jimmy Greenfield:

    According to the National Archives website, "funds from private and nonfederal public sources provided the funds to build the library. Once completed, the private organization turned over the libraries to the National Archives and Records Administration to operate and maintain." State and local governments may help finance the projects. The Lincoln museum in Springfield was built by federal, state and local funds and is operated by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

  • Mostly they are privately funded; some fully so. But tax money also can be involved. Here's the explanation from the U.S. Archives, which oversees the library programs:

    "How is a Presidential Library paid for and funded?

    "A Presidential Library is constructed with private or non-Federal funds donated to non-profit organizations established usually for the express purpose of building a Presidential Library and supporting its programs. Some libraries have also received construction and development funding from state and/or local governments.

    "The library is then transferred to the Federal government and operated and maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) through its congressionally appropriated operating budget. Some staff and programs at Presidential libraries are paid for with funds from associated private foundations organized to fund the construction of the library and provide continuing support for library programs and special events, such as conferences and exhibitions."

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