By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
Illinois voters have the rare opportunity this fall to amend the state constitution, by acting upon a measure that passed the General Assembly with strong bipartisan support.
Though it had been attempted and failed before, the so-called Lockbox Amendment breezed through the state approval process this year and aims to protect money intended for transportation infrastructure — roads, bridges and rail — from being “swept” for other purposes.
“I sponsored a number of bills in my years as state senator, and most of them were longshots,” state Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, said of the measure he sponsored. “I thought there would be attempted opposition, because everyone doesn’t want to lose this pot of money. And it passed — unanimously. There were five constitutional amendments proposed and only one of them will be on the ballot. Mine.”
Haine was sought out by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce to introduce the measure, HJRCA 36. Similar efforts had been tried and failed previously as state leaders continued to rely on sweeping the state Road Fund to help pay general expenses.
Some $6.4 billion has been removed from the Road Fund since 2003. According to the Illinois Department of Revenue some $1.191 billion was collected in motor fuel taxes during the calendar year 2015.
The six-month stop-gap budget passed last spring — which Haine voted against, as a matter of what he considered bad public policy — contained some $400 million swept from the Road Fund.
The money mainly represents gasoline taxes and license plate fees paid to the state.
“It’s been a nice pot of money to take, but I think it’s wrong to do it from a public policy standpoint,” Haine said. You can’t make it up. Later budgets will have to forgo the debt.”
The theory is that sweeping money from these accounts will not affect the functioning of the department because of a promise that the money will be paid back.
“In the Road Fund, this is not true. Legislators eventually come back, wipe the debt out and act like they have hundreds of millions of dollars “in ‘new money,’ which is simply not the case. It’s all smoke and mirrors,” Haine said.
He added: “It makes it extremely difficult to provide necessary maintenance for our roads and bridges and to provide matching funds for capital.”
The Lockbox Amendment would provide assurance against such spending practices.
“If it’s in the constitution, a lawsuit could be filed if any of this money is diverted. That’s what will be implied in the constitution. I don’t believe any member of the assembly or the governor would do it, as they have in the past, if it’s in the constitution of Illinois,” Haine said.
“People that pay these gasoline taxes want it to be used for these transportation purposes, not for the general revenue fund,” he added.
The state gas tax in Illinois is 19 cents a gallon and has not been raised in years.
Without securing the road money, Haine sees two critical areas of concern. One is the lack of maintenance on roads, which will drive businesses to other states. The other is the loss of the talent pool.
“If we do not keep our maintenance schedule, and our infrastructure begins to deteriorate, these contractors, the workers and the engineers whose livelihoods depend on this fund will go elsewhere. We lose talent that takes years to bring back,” he said.
And, the projects become that much more expensive when they are finally addressed.
“All of these things take money. All of these things are necessary to the prosperity of our region,” he said.
The Legislature promised years ago when it first authorized the gasoline tax that the money would go to infrastructure, Haine pointed out.
“This (amendment) is part of a way of telling the citizens that, yes, we are keeping this commitment,” he said.
The conditions of the road are getting worse, but Haine said he can’t fault IDOT, whose engineers are doing the best with the money they’ve got.
“Our maintenance schedule every year falls behind and that is something we cannot tolerate,” he said.
He said an awareness campaign is crucial, since taxpayers won’t support the proposed amendment if they don’t understand the principle behind it.
The Illinois Chamber of Commerce has said it will continue to conduct a vigorous campaign.
“This is, of course, not the last step. Together with lawmakers, the Illinois Chamber will spend the (remaining) months explaining to local Chambers, business owners, laborers and taxpayers that the amendment will honor the promise that infrastructure projects will be sole beneficiary of the Road Fund. This will lead to a better transportation network, more jobs, and a growing economy,” Todd Maisch, president and CEO of the Chamber, said recently.
Any statewide ballot question to ratify an amendment proposed by the Illinois General Assembly must be approved by a supermajority vote of 60 percent of those voting on the question or a majority vote of those who cast a ballot for any office in the election.