The Peoria riverfront museum project got a show of support Thursday from Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who signed into law a plan to let Peoria County seek voter approval on a special sales tax.


The Peoria riverfront museum project got a show of support Thursday from Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who signed into law a plan to let Peoria County seek voter approval on a special sales tax.

If endorsed by voters in a referendum, the new tax would help pay for the long-sought museum project in Downtown Peoria. County officials haven’t decided on the size of any proposed sales tax, but County Administrator Patrick Urich has said he would recommend 0.25 percent, which translates to 25 cents on a $100 purchase.

Urich said now that the governor has signed the so-called “museum tax” bill into law, the County Board must work through a number of policy issues.

Before deciding on the specifics of a potential sales tax increase, board members will want to determine exactly what the county’s role would be with the museum and how long any obligations would last, Urich said. Once those issues are settled, the board could figure out the size and duration of a proposed sales tax increase.

If those matters can be resolved in the next couple of months, a sales tax referendum question could show up on Peoria County ballots in the spring, Urich said. The board has until Jan. 31 to decide whether to get the referendum question on the April 7 ballot.

Given the current economic climate, getting voters to back a tax increase won’t be a simple task, supporters of the plan admit.

“As everyone knows, a referendum is not an easy thing to pass,” said Sen. David Koehler, a Peoria Democrat who was the bill’s lead Senate sponsor. “You’ve got to state your case to the public.”

Peoria Republican state Sen. Dale Risinger, who co-sponsored the bill, said an educational effort would be launched to encourage voters to approve the referendum.

“If we can convince the people that it’s a wise investment in the museum, then we’re going to have quite a project ... and quite a tourist attraction,” Risinger said. “We’ll make the case that we think it’s the right thing to do, but in the end they’ll vote and tell us.”

The new law, formerly known as Senate Bill 1290, was inspired by the Peoria community’s effort to build a riverfront museum, but it applies in a broader sense to all Illinois counties and is effective immediately.

It will allow any county to ask voters in a referendum if they want to support a sales tax hike “for public facility purposes.”

In Peoria County, for instance, the special tax could be used for other projects, such as a new county-operated Bel-Wood Nursing Home.

Museum officials heard about the governor’s action during a Lakeview Museum board meeting on Thursday afternoon. Lakeview is one of five organizations that make up the collaborative museum group.

Brad McMillan, the spokesman for the group, received a call from Koehler, who reported that the bill had passed the final legislative hurdle.

“I held the phone up and Senator Koehler received a standing ovation from the board,” McMillan said.

Blagojevich’s signature “finally gives us the potential vehicle that would be the final piece of the puzzle to move this great project forward,” McMillan said.

McMillan said a private/public project the size of the $137 million combined Riverfront Museum and Caterpillar visitors center is a good hedge against tough economic times, even if it would need the public help of an increased sales tax.

“This project would bring hundreds of construction jobs to the region at the exact time there is talk of national economic stimulus and infrastructure improvements designed to keep people working,” McMillan said.

Five Peoria-area lawmakers, including Koehler and Risinger, spearheaded the effort to get the new law on the books. The others were state Reps. David Leitch, R-Peoria, Donald Moffitt, R-Gilson and Mike Smith, D-Canton.

Adriana Colindres can be reached at (217) 782-6292 or Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or