A measure that could be sent to the governor soon would bring some changes to the private foundation that supports the public Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
The private foundation is meant to support the public state agency, but there have been questions about its operations as it lobbied lawmakers last year for tax dollars to pay off a debt. Reports indicated the $9 million debt was for a collection referred to the Taper Collection that included a variety of Lincoln-related artifacts such as bloodstained gloves from the day the 16th president was assassinated. It also included a stovepipe hat thought to have belonged to Lincoln, but investigators and DNA testing failed to verify its authenticity.
After reports about the hat and debt made national news, lawmakers kicked around several measures to provide additional oversight for the private foundation, including the creation of an oversight committee, or opening up the foundation to audits and public records requests.
One measure addressing the foundation did pass. Senate Bill 731 does several things.
State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, said the measure creates a coordinating body that will help resolve issues between the private foundation and public state agency before they get to lawmakers.
“[The coordinating body will deal with] the complaints, or perhaps the different views of how things should proceed at the museum between the foundation and the museum [before they] end up here in front of the legislature and they litigate their difference here, which is the worst place to do that,” Manar said.
That body would have 3 members from the ALPLM agency board and three members from the private foundation board, along with the State Historian.
State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said there’s still no agency board, and the measure doesn’t open the coordinating body to the state's Freedom of Information Act or to the Open Meetings Act.
The measure also guarantees the private foundation gets the contracts to manage the museum’s restaurant and gift shop, something Butler also took issue with.
“I think this circumvents procurement rules in the state of Illinois where it actually lays out the fact that the foundation shall fun the concession and the gift shop at the museum,” Butler said. “It does not open it up for bid, or anything like that.”
Despite those reservations, Butler supported the bill. However, he said there’s more work to do. He also said there’s a major issue still lingering.
“Certainly this does nothing to relieve the foundation of their Taper debt, which has been the thing from the beginning, this is nothing with the Taper debt,” Butler said. “I don’t know what’s going on with that. The foundation has been silent on the Taper debt for six months now.”
Foundation officials had said they could be forced to sell historical items to pay back money borrowed to buy a large collection of Lincoln-related artifacts.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he opposed the idea of Illinois taxpayers bailing the foundation out of its debt, WBEZ reported.
“I support the governor's position, that especially during the difficult budget circumstances that we face, that we shouldn't be using taxpayer dollars to erase debt of a private foundation even though the artifacts, by and large, should be in the possession of the people of the state,” Manar said. “But I don’t think that means that the governor isn’t committed to making sure the debt is paid off.
“We can reset this relationship and make sure that people that this kind of angst is behind us,” Manar said.
The foundation last year said it contracted with an auction house to begin evaluating the value of various pieces to sell if it can't raise enough money to pay off a $9 million debt. That debt comes due later this year.