“Illinois is one big pothole right now,” former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told state senators Monday, fresh off a drive along what he described as a hole-riddled I-55 to get from Peoria to a hearing in Chicago, where he sought to convince legislators to raise the state tax on gasoline.
Finding billions of dollars to repair roads, bridges and other infrastructure needs is high on legislators’ list of priorities with five weeks left in their spring session.
But so too are other hefty “asks” of first-time Gov. J.B. Pritzker, meaning he and lawmakers will also have to carefully navigate potholes of the political variety if they’re to pass a balanced budget prior to the May 31 adjournment deadline.
Thus far, Pritzker hasn’t publicly backed a funding stream for a capital program, though he’s repeatedly classified it as necessary and he hasn’t ruled out a hike in the current 19-cents-per-gallon gas tax – a method favored not just by LaHood, but by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and state Sen. Martin Sandoval, who heads the chamber’s transportation committee.
“People have been saying this for years now. Time for the chickens to come home to roost. Let’s get it done,” Sandoval said. “Our investments in our highway infrastructure … it’s much needed. We’ve got to get around to in Illinois viewing our infrastructure like a utility. And it requires investments day in and day out. The bottom line is most Illinoisans pay about $300 into the road fund for mass transit and roads, highways and bridges. We pay more for our cellphones than we do for getting around our state. It’s a ‘come home to reality’ time.”
At the same time, Pritzker is championing an even more immense tax proposal, which would amend the constitution so the state could charge different tax rates based on residents’ income strata. Plus, he’s pushing for the state to begin taxing plastic bags and e-cigarettes and a 32-cent-a-pack increase in cigarettes.
It’s a lot to accomplish, and a lot of potentially risky revenue votes, in a short period of time.
“People are complaining about potholes and I believe that if the General Assembly raised the gas tax and fixed up the roads and bridges, people would be very happy,” LaHood said – as long as the revenue actually funds roads and bridges, and isn’t diverted to pay for other expenses or to balance the budget.
LaHood tried to pre-empt lawmakers’ fears that voters would punish them for a hike in the gas tax, telling them that 29 states have done something similar in the past few years.
“Not one legislator and not one governor has been thrown out of office because they voted to increase the gas tax in those states,” he said. “You’re not going got get caught up in any controversy doing that.”
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