Concerns raised over gas-tax expenditures

By Kevin Beese Staff Reporter

(Second in a series of stories looking at the pork-barrel extras included in the state gas tax hike of 19 cents per gallon)

Along with fixing roads, bridges and crumbling public structures, the state’s capital bill — funded by a doubling of the gasoline tax — is also picking up the tab for river walks, bird habitats and new college buildings.

With millions dedicated to legislative initiatives (read as pet projects), motorists in one county will be helping fund projects that they may never see. Every Illinois lawmaker was told to designate at least $1.5 million in initiatives as part of the capital bill. Democratic state senators got four times that amount to dole out.

Thirty-two Republicans — 12 in the state Senate and 20 in the state House — signed on to the budget and capital bill, a fact that angered a group of more fiscally conservative Republicans.

In an open letter, eight Republican members of the state House ripped their colleagues for drinking the Kool-Aid on the spending plan. State Reps. Blaine Wilhour of Effingham, Brad Halbrook of Shelbyville, David McSweeney of Barrington Hills, Darren Bailey of Xenia, Chris Miller of Oakland, Allen Skillicorn of Crystal Lake, Dan Caulkins of Decatur and John Cabello of Machesney Park said taxpayers will bear the brunt of their peers’ decisions through higher gasoline taxes and license-plate fees.

“Once again, Democrats feast like kings, while ‘Republicans’ are happy begging for the crumbs and the persecuted Illinois taxpayers take yet another uppercut to the gut,” the lawmakers said in their open letter.

The eight lawmakers said it was disheartening to see so many Republicans sell their vote for some local project money.

“It is especially discouraging to see many Republican leaders not only vote for these tax increases, but then promote false narratives that are constantly perpetuated by the tax-and-spend Democrats in order to excuse their vote,” the Republican House members said.

“To hear some Republican leaders talk about how we have to raise taxes because Illinois taxpayers don’t currently pay enough to cover our spending programs is shocking,” they continued. “These are Democrat talking points and they are embarrassing. We hear them say ‘We haven’t raised the gas tax since 1990.’ What they fail to mention is that Illinois taxpayers are already burdened with a gas tax that is top 10 in the nation.”

The $45 billion capital bill is being funded by a 19-cent-per-gallon tax hike on gasoline, raising the tax to 38 cents per gallon, and a $50 increase in license-plate renewals.

When pitching the benefits of the capital bill during a downstate tour earlier this summer, Gov. J.B. Pritzker stressed that a good portion of the funding will land outside of the Chicago area and in places not in Democratic control.

“The fact is that a majority of the money, of course, from the infrastructure bill goes to downstate Illinois,” Pritzker said. “As you know, the many roads, the miles of roads all across the state, the bridges, the significant investment necessary is in mostly downstate Illinois and although there are Democrats in districts in this area and across downstate Illinois, most of that is represented by Republican representatives and senators; and I’m very much in favor of fairness here. I want to make sure that we’re making the investments that are necessary.”

However, a Chronicle Media examination of the infrastructure bill shows that four counties in the Chronicle footprint — DeKalb, McLean, Tazewell and Woodford — have no funding at all in the bill or nothing other than roadway or waterway initiatives that would fit the typical definition of infrastructure funding.

Individuals familiar with the capital spending package said there was plenty of horse-trading going on as the bill was written.

“They were calling out in the hallway ‘I need $50,000 for this and $100,000 for that,’ as the bill was being put together,” said an individual who was on the front lines.

The Illinois Policy Institute, an independent organization that aims to generate public policy solutions, has questioned funding in the capital bill, finding an estimated $1.4 billion in pork, including pickle ball courts, recreational paths, swimming pools and water parks, in the spending plan.

While Pritzker argues that a majority of the bill’s funding lands downstate, Illinois Policy officials point to Chicago and its surrounding communities pulling in the lion’s share of the pork.

“Cook County has a lot of non-core infrastructure in the bill,” said Adam Schuster, the institute’s budget and tax research director. “There is definitely favoritism toward Cook County, and Chicago specifically. It seems consistent with the fact that there is political favoritism in Illinois and that Chicago is the political powerhouse of the state.”

Schuster said he has heard the governor’s claim that a majority of the transportation spending is going downstate. He said the Policy Institute has not been able to verify that as it is still seeking information about the spending package.

He said that $580 million of the package is in very vague terms and taxpayers will not know how exactly that money is spent for some time, if ever.

Schuster said there are things, such as construction of new schools and park district projects, that would normally be addressed on an individual basis by those governing bodies.

“There is $470,000 for five dog park locations in the state,” Schuster said. “Those are typically local capital expenditures that fall on local taxpayers.”

He said local governments raise their own funds and can make the case for some of the things to be addressed on a local basis.

“They can be locally funded,” Schuster said of local projects, “not paid for by every taxpayer.”

Schuster said there are a lot of projects that might pass the muster if Illinois was in healthier shape financially.

“In some cases, a healthy state could justify spending money on a certain thing,” Schuster said. “We are still in fiscal trouble. With the condition our state is in, we should only fund the most critical things.”

He said certain cities and regions having more sway with lawmakers in Springfield is simply the way things get done in Illinois.

“It’s the way we’ve done business for so long that it’s almost normalized here,” Schuster said. “A big part of the reason other states have higher-quality infrastructure is that they allocate their money more efficiently.”

PART 1: Gas-tax hike going for more than just roads, bridges