SPRINGFIELD - Gov. Rod Blagojevich has revived an obscure and long-forgotten naval militia that officially was scuttled 17 years ago.
The Illinois Naval Militia, which he resurrected in a January executive order, is supposed to patrol the state's waterways and provide aid during natural disasters.
But the order has touched off a possible constitutional challenge from Senate Republicans, who are questioning whether the governor can revive the militia without General Assembly approval. They have requested a legal opinion from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
"There could have been legislative input in whether there is truly a need for a naval militia and what role it would play in a modern society," Senate Republican spokeswoman Patty Schuh said. "Instead the governor chose to do an end run around the Legislature."
The administration defended its actions.
"Republicans are constantly criticizing and doing things to stand in the way of progress," said Rebecca Rausch, an administration spokeswoman. "This is another layer of public safety."
The militia's ranks would include volunteers from the state's Navy and Marine Reserve units. The force's potential size ranges from 2,500 to 4,000 and would be operated by the Illinois Department of Military Affairs.
The proposal would allow reservists to volunteer for the state militia and be called to duty by the governor as long as it doesn't conflict with their federal duties.
The proposal also comes as the National Guard takes a more prominent role in the ongoing war on terror.
Fletcher Crews, executive assistant to the state's adjutant general, estimates that 78 percent of the state's National Guard has been deployed for combat during the last three years
"For years nobody thought of the National Guard as being at the frontlines of the war 365 days a year as they are now," he said.
The state's naval militia was created in 1893, but it was last activated during the 1937 floods, Crews said.
"They didn't go away. They just kind of went out of fashion," he said. "People stopped having them because we had a Navy Reserve."
By the 1970s, the state's naval militia devolved into a social club located along the Chicago waterfront. The city annexed the property, shutting down the militia. In 1988, lawmakers finally dissolved the organization.
Currently, the state is working on a series of agreements that must be approved by the U.S. Department of the Navy and the Navy Reserve. The agreements would allow the state to use federal facilities for training and spell out how the militia would be used.
"It's not something that we can flick a switch and start up," Crews said.
The fiscal year 2007 budget approved Thursday by the General Assembly doesn't include startup money for the new unit. However, the spending plan does allow militia members to tap into scholarships currently set aside for National Guardsmen.