SPRINGFIELD - Gov. Rod Blagojevich acknowledged Wednesday that he is considering leasing the state toll highway system to a private company as a way to generate dollars for public education.
But, amidst Republican outcry, the governor denied the potentially multi-billion dollar proposal was moving forward as a way to appease state Sen. James Meeks, a Democrat who is threatening to run as a third-party candidate next November.
"It's not," Blagojevich said following an event in Springfield.
Rather, he said his administration merely wants to look at the potential financial benefits of privatizing the toll highway system.
"The possibility of being able to get an influx of a lot of money for schools, whether it be that asset or some other idea we're talking about are very excited," Blagojevich said.
Republicans raised red flags about the proposal Wednesday after reports surfaced that Meeks, a Chicago minister, has discussed the topic of selling state assets during recent meetings with the governor.
"That would probably be the most awful, opportunistic reason for doing something like that," said Blagojevich's Republican opponent, Judy Baar Topinka. "It seems the reasoning behind this is purely political."
State Rep. Bob Pritchard, R-Hinckley, who has a swath of tollway running through his district, cited a laundry list of concerns that would need to be addressed before such a plan gets his support.
"We need to make sure there are safeguards about how the roads are going to be maintained," said Pritchard.
No matter the concerns, the administration said the toll lease is not being considered as part of current budget talks for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
"This is not an idea being discussed in the context of the budget that is being finalized now," said Blagojevich spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch. "It's just being looked at."
Following a two-hour, closed door budget negotiating session, Blagojevich sounded a hopeful note about the progress of the talks, which are now more than 19 days past when lawmakers had originally hoped to have the state's spending plan in place.
"I think we're making progress. We're reaching consensus on a variety of things," said Blagojevich. "I'm cautiously optimistic as we move forward. There are still some loose ends that have to be dealt with. I think things are going smoothly."
Blagojevich, Senate President Emil Jones and House Speaker Michael Madigan have been meeting without Republican input in an attempt to hammer out an agreement on the $55 billion budget.
Jones, D-Chicago, said the sides are coming closer together on a number of issues, but couldn't say for sure if lawmakers will be voting on a budget next week when the General Assembly reconvenes.