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Normal transportation center’s federal funding on hold

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SPRINGFIELD — Democratic leaders taking over Congress in January want to temporarily stop approving federal money for local projects — a move that could delay a planned transportation center in Normal.

The leaders announced earlier this week they will impose a moratorium on local spending sought by members of Congress, called “earmarks,” in the still-incomplete fiscal 2007 budget. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Springfield, said in a prepared statement the moratorium was imposed so the earmarking process can be reformed to stress transparency and accountability.

Whatever happens to the process, millions of dollars earmarked for Illinois projects may no longer be available, at least for now.

“There was a lot of money for Illinois in that budget,” said U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, a Peoria Republican. “I wish we could have passed them (the fiscal 2007 appropriations bills).”

Among the spending on hold is $500,000 slated for the Normal facility and millions for bus service in Bloomington, Decatur and Rock Island.

“Of course, we’re not happy about it,” said Andy Fuller, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Morris. “This seems to be a meat ax approach to the situation.”

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The earmarking process was a tumultuous political topic in the most recent election campaign. Incumbent lawmakers often tout local accomplishments, but some critics see such projects as unnecessary spending.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, said he thinks many local projects, such as the Normal transportation center, are necessary.

“These aren’t superfluous swimming pools and gymnasiums,” said spokesman Phil Bloomer.

Despite the delay, lawmakers hope that the federal money will become available again — and that their projects will remain on the list. In the meantime, Congress will begin its new session early next year, and lawmakers can begin pushing for the money then.

“We’d start the process over again,” LaHood said.

Roger Miller contributed to this story.

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