Doing the wrong things right at Capital Airport
August 19, 1982
Superficially about Springfield's airport authority, this piece is in fact about a question pertinent to every sizable town in Illinois, which is whether appointed, quasi-autonomous special authorities and service districts armed with their own taxing and bonding powers are the best way to handle the public's business. The perfect piece, in short, to cuddle up with in front a fire on a cold winter's day.
By the way, the answer to that question is, It depends on how such authorities are run. Which in the case of the SAA is not well.
It probably goes back to their relationships with their fathers. How else can one explain the Springfield Airport Authority's obsession with impressing visiting dignitaries? George Bush shows up a few months ago and couldn't find a place to eat some popcorn in private, so the SAA spends 70 grand to add a "VIP room" to Capital Airport's new terminal addition, complete with a bar, shower, film projectors, and, presumably, a popcorn maker.
That's nothing. A few years ago a Springfield legislator (who used to be chairman of the SAA) talked the state into spending tens of thousands of dollars to build a landscaped divided highway between the airport and the city so that vice-presidents hitting town on the chicken-and-peas circuit wouldn't have to drive on the same kinds of roads which the rest of us have to drive on because so much of our road funds have been spent building roads like that. I was only surprised the road wasn't paved with red carpet instead of asphalt. Blindfolds would have been cheaper, but the SAA likes to do things in style.
The VIP room, along with the $5 million expansion of which it is such a minor part, have led some Springfieldians to ask some questions. Such as, "Why do we need a VIP room?" And "Why do we need a bigger airport when traffic is declining?" And "Why do we need the SAA?" And most acute of all, "Why do we need an airport?
The SAA will no doubt reply, "To serve the traveling public." The problem is that the SAA's "public" tends toward the VIP-ish itself. Working people seldom take airplanes. Air travel never did become popular as predicted, nor is it likely to. Instead it will remain, along with tax shelters and charity write-offs, a way for the lower classes to subsidize the lifestyle of their betters.
The traffic into and out of Capital Airport consists mainly of state and federal bureaucrats shuttling back and forth to Chicago, business executives doing the same, and well-to-do private flyers of the sort who so often end up in cornfields during snowstorms. Most of this fluttering back and forth is convenient rather than essential, although it is a fault common to all three passenger groups that they usually mistake one for the other.
Indeed, it seems more accurate to say that the public serves Capital Airport, not the other way around. The airport is maintained in part by the SAA's tax on local property. Additional capital and operating funds come from state and federal (including that part of each which funds the Air National Guard). Much of the annual passenger load consists of tax-paid state trips or tax-deductible business flights, all of which benefit a small segment of the population which is getting smaller every year. Commercial traffic has declined 37 percent in three years, although commuter and business aircraft ferrying briefcases to and from meeting rooms buzz around the airport like gnats. I haven't seen any figures, but I suspect that there are few modes of travel which carry a higher tax subsidy per passenger mile this side of nuclear submarines.
But, as the Prairie Capital Convention Center has proven, a flexible enough definition of "public"—and hence of public interest—allows one to justify any manner of public works, even private popcorn parlors for passing politicos. The ambitions of the SAA are more personal than public, the result of that familiar identification of the merchant class with their community. The men who founded the SAA, like the men who continue to run it, are boosters to the bone. The special issue of the State Journal-Register commemorating the opening of Capital Airport in 1947 recounted how local insurance exec Henry Lutz marshaled his forces for the lobbying effort which led to voter approval of the SAA in 1945. On V-E day (said the paper) Lutz telephoned fifty of what he considered "the key men of the city." He asked them two questions: "You're for Springfield, aren't you?" and "You're for an airport, aren't you?"
Nobody said no. Now, one could complain that Lutz's was a self-proving opinion sample. (Sangamon State University used the same technique more than twenty years later, when it determined the need for increased service at Capitol Airport by interviewing tourists, air passengers at the airport, hotel guests, travel agents, and what surveyors called "frequent airline users.") But just as important is what the anecdote reveals about the operating style of local key men. The Illinois Public Airports Association (IPAA), which is to airport authorities what Gloria Schwartz is to Israel, notes in a recent newsletter that most such boards "maintain a close liaison relationship over a cup of coffee, a business luncheon, an informal telephone or personal office call" with the political officials who appoint them and to whom they are officially responsible. This behind-the-scenes contact, the IPAA explains, "bypasses stodgy legal formalities."
So extreme has become the SAA's distaste for stodgy formalities that its new chairman threatened not long ago not to speak with reporters unless given written questions in advance. Understandably some people have concluded that a little more formality in airport decision-making may not be altogether a bad thing. Accordingly it has been proposed (not altogether innocently) by Sangamon County Board chairman Richard Austin that a new law be passed giving his board and the mayor of Springfield, who share appointment power over the SAA, oversight of the authority's budget.
The idea has much to recommend it, not the least being the opposition of the SAA, the IPAA, and the State Journal-Register. There are broader issues of equity and efficiency at stake in the operation of Capitol Airport. For the first time in thirty-five years people are asking whether an appointed, quasi-autonomous authority armed with its own taxing and bonding powers is quite the best way to handle the public's business. As the Sangamon County board chairman put it in a letter to the IPAA, "Where does the responsibility lie for reflective administration of public attitudes?" (Well, no, I'm not sure what that means either, but I think he's talking about who guarantees that the public gets what it wants when the public has no direct control over government.)
Doug Kane, the Springfield legislator, believes that such responsibility lies with the public. That's why he has called for the abolition of many of Illinois's authorities and special service districts. Kane has even suggested that the SAA might be dissolved and its functions transferred to either the city or the county.
Kane's views find support in a 1977 position paper by a Sangamon State University professor of political economy, Clarence Danhof, called "Modernizing Springfield's Government." Danhof notes, "Springfield's present complex of governments . . . is a product of the restriction of the now discarded 1870 State Constitution. Some originated not as the best but as the most feasible methods of accomplishing an objective." The SAA, in short, is a solution for which there is no longer a problem.
Because of the fragmented nature of local government voters have no chance to review the total expenditure of tax monies, no chance (for example) to say whether they would rather use their tax money to shave an hour off their banker's son's semester commute to prep school or spend it teaching his janitor's little girl how to read. Danhof proposed a remedy similar to, but broader in scope than Austin's—a Metropolitan Area Board of Review which would review and approve such expenditures for all taxing bodies.
Alas, as the Chicago Tribune noted editorially the other day, "The public pretty much takes government for granted. Serious suggestions for reform are too often limited to political science books that nobody reads. " (Including big-city newspaper editors, apparently.) Given the generally wonky nature of the electorate, there is no certainty that they wouldn't ratify the visions of the closet Sky Kings who run Capital Airport. It might be nice to find out for sure, though. In the meantime I will sleep better knowing that if the Pope blows through town and gets the urge to pick his nose out of sight of prying eyes, he has a place to do it. Maybe he'll even tell his friends. ●