Chicago Airport Flap Highlights the Tensions Between Cities, States

DEMOCRATIC Mayor Richard Daley was all smiles recently after disclosing a secret pact that stymied Republican state lawmakers and linked Chicago's airports with those of Gary, Ind., under a new regional airport authority.

The mayor's surprise maneuver was aimed at thwarting efforts by Illinois's Republican-dominated state legislature to take control of Chicago's airports -- the busiest in the world, producing $90 million a year in passenger ticket tax revenues.

But swift retaliation by Republican lawmakers who were infuriated by the April 15 Chicago-Gary airport agreement -- including stripping Mr. Daley and other city officials of a planned pay raise -- has left the mayor wincing.

The growing polarization here mirrors partisan tensions in Washington and elsewhere in the country.

Such tensions are rising as newly empowered Republicans pursue bold legislative agendas at the federal and state levels. The GOP now controls both houses of the legislatures in 19 states, compared with eight before last November's election. The Democrats hold both houses in 18 states, and the rest are split.

In Illinois, frictions between Chicago and the state could worsen if the GOP-led Congress in Washington carries out plans to devolve more power to states -- rather than local governments like Chicago -- by giving states responsibility for allocating funds for welfare and other social programs, political experts say.

''Republicans have always tended to support ... devolving authority to states rather than cities,'' says John Pelissero, professor of political science at Loyola University in Chicago.

To avoid such fractiousness, advocates for cities have called for local governments to have a voice in allocation of federal grants, says Randolph Arndt, of the Washington-based National League of Cities. ''We don't want to become polarized,'' he says.

In Illinois, the feuding between Daley and his ''downstate'' opponents illustrates how the political rift between the urban, Democratic stronghold of Chicago and predominantly rural and suburban Republican Illinois has deepened since last November, when Republicans took control of the state legislature for the first time in 20 years. In effect, the Republican state lawmakers can act independently of the city.

''For years they [Republicans] have had to deal with the leadership from Chicago to get anywhere. Now they don't have to,'' says Jack Van Der Slik, director of the Legislative Studies Center at Sangamon State University in Springfield, Ill.

Before Daley's surprise airport deal, Republican state lawmakers had moved to set up a new, suburban-dominated airport authority that would end Chicago's control of the airports. City officials were concerned that the planned authority would divert revenues from the economically vital O'Hare and Midway airports to fund a third major airport in Peotone, Ill.

''Any threat to the viability of those airports impacts our whole economy and region,'' says mayoral spokesman Peter Cunningham. Daley's move preempts state control of the airports. Under federal law, the bi-state airport authority created by Chicago and Gary would supersede the state authority planned by Republicans.

''There is a lot of anger and frustration here,'' says Mark Gordon, a spokesman in for state Senate Republican leader James ''Pate'' Philip. ''If Chicago is not willing to cooperate with Illinois, it makes it a much tougher sell for the city's wish list.''

Republicans have already cut one item on the mayor's 1996 budget wish list -- $23 million for a downtown trolley. And they are considering pulling state police patrols from Chicago's highways and ending funding for a city crime lab.

The dispute between Chicago and state authorities is likely to broaden into conflicts over major policy issues such as schooling, health care, and welfare, observers say. ''When it comes to social programs and the urban poor, those are on the block where Republicans are concerned,'' says Mr. Van Der Slik, an expert on the Illinois legislature.

Schools, he says, will also be an issue. ''There is a sense among downstate legislators that Chicago schools are a black hole and the job doesn't get done in the classroom.'' The Chicago school system faces a $150 million budget deficit this year. In order for the school system to save money, city officials say the state must legislate reforms such as easing spending restrictions and allowing privatization.

''If these guys [state Republican lawmakers] decide they will not change the state laws ... we will not be able to close the budget gap'' and open the schools this September, Mr. Cunningham says.

While more arm-wrestling is expected between Chicago and state authorities, analysts predict that in coming months Daley will have to negotiate a compromise, possibly with the intervention of Illinois's Republican governor Jim Edgar.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.