Why A State Fair Foundation Hasn't Won Legislators' Blue Ribbon

Mar 22, 2016

Gov. Bruce Rauner stands near an Illinois State Fair building in need of roof repairs. With $180 million in deferred maintenance at the Springfield and Du Quoin fair grounds, Rauner advocates for a law that would allow a private foundation to raise money for upkeep.
Credit Amanda Vinicky

Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin -- each collects private donations to help run their state fairs. But despite faulty infrastructure that will cost an estimated 180 million dollars to repair, Illinois does not.

It’s a windy day on the state fairgrounds in Springfield. Illinois' Director of Agriculture, Raymond Poe, laments a nearby building's crumbling roof.

"Agriculture represents about 25 percent of the economic value of the state of Illinois, all the way from farmers to exports. We need a place - and a high class place - to showcase our agriculture," he said.

Before he was ag director, Poe spent two decades as a state representative. Back in 2004 he tried to create a not-for-profit Illinois State Fair Foundation. It never got a hearing.

He tried again last year. Again, no hearing.

Poe says House Speaker Michael Madigan obstructed plans.

Now, with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's support, there’s a third attempt underway.

The latest proposal comes as Illinois nears the end of a ninth month without a budget. Without spending authority, Illinois can't pay fair vendors.

Rauner says he believes Illinois will get a budget, but the situation shows why foundation is needed.

"This is good government. This is a way to relieve pressure on taxpayers. We can maintain an important economic growth engine for the state. This will free up money that would otherwise go to maintain these facilities ... now money can go to human services, more money can go to our schools," he said. "We can put money into other priorities because the business community and others - generous donors - can take some of the burden off with these facilities."

Madigan's spokesman, Steve Brown, says Democratic leaders will reconsider, but asks "what's wrong with just using that time-honored approach of using resources directly? Why do you need a side entity to accomplish this work?"

Brown says the governor's mansion fell into disrepair, even though it has a private foundation. A separate foundation to support the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum has come under some scrutiny.