Funding for the new federal courthouse is a reality now that President Bush signed a massive spending bill today.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Don Manzullo may fight on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they’ve been in the same foxhole for nearly a decade in the war to find the money to build a new federal courthouse in Rockford.
The battle came to an end today when President Bush signed a $555 billion spending bill that included $58.8 million for the courthouse. That’s enough to top off the $100 million price tag for the six-story, 193,000-square-foot building.
Construction will begin in the spring at the courthouse site, bounded by Church, Chestnut, Cedar and Court streets.
Durbin, D-Illinois, and Manzullo, R-Egan, have campaigned since 1999 for courthouse funding, with intermittent success along the way. Even as the final spending bill worked its way through Congress in the days before Christmas, neither man would allow himself to feel safe.
“This was a war,” Manzullo said.
The first fight was with the Judicial Conference, a cross section of federal judges that makes recommendations on court administration.
The body ranks proposed courthouses in order of importance. For years, Rockford languished somewhere in the middle, despite the small, outdated building on Court Street.
And little progress was forthcoming.
“It was being moved up and down their priority list,” Manzullo said. “We ... had to eliminate the politics of the robes, otherwise the land would have been cleared and there would be no money.”
So Manzullo and Durbin crafted legislation to build the courthouse, thus circumventing the Judicial Conference altogether.
The General Services Administration, which serves as the administrative arm of the federal government, was another front of the attack. GSA oversees construction projects whose funding has been approved. After Manzullo and Durbin got $34.5 million in 2005 — after attaching their legislation to that year’s budget bill — GSA officials green-lighted the start of construction but later changed their decision and required full funding for building to begin.
“We felt we had guarantees and assurances that disappeared,” Durbin said.
Security issues drive up cost
The more expensive the building became, the longer it took to secure the rest of the funds. First, officials tossed around a $20 million price tag. Then $40 million. Now, it’s a $100 million project.
“Every year that it was delayed, it cost more,” Durbin said. “It was like we’d never be able to grab that brass ring. We’d be reaching, and every time they’d pull it farther away.”
The nine-figure price tag is partly because of increasing construction costs but also higher demand for security. Federal courthouses are now designed to fit a world after Oklahoma City and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“This is not a Taj Mahal,” Manzullo said. “Because of the very real threats of terrorism, it has to meet very rigorous standards.”
The waiting game
As time ticked on, Durbin was appointed chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee, giving him influence over spending bills working their way through Congress.
It was one of the first moves in the Rockford courthouse’s favor in years.
“That’s why in this job you’ve got to be in for the long haul,” Manzullo said. “You’ve got to wait out these bureaucrats, stare them in the face and use every method to get the thing done.”
As this year’s spending bill became a political hot potato over funding the Iraq war, Durbin said he kept a nervous eye on the courthouse funding.
“Over the last two or three weeks, it was in and out,” he said. “Every morning my staffers who stayed late would have to update me. Ultimately, I said there’s not going to be a bill without the courthouse.”
With the funding in the bag and groundbreaking planned for spring, the two lawmakers can finally enjoy the victory both said they knew would come.
“We were focused on it. We knew how important it was,” Durbin said. “It became a matter of pride at some point. We secured enough funds to know it would happen. To give up and walk away would have been wasteful.”
Staff writer Sean F. Driscoll can be reached at 815-987-1410 or firstname.lastname@example.org.