Road Lockbox Amendment Vote Could Send Us Careening

Opinion by Reboot Illinois' Madeleine Doubek

Opinion

It's rough riding out there in Illinois. Dodging the potholes is like running an obstacle course. Plenty of our train and el cars look worse for wear. And do you ever kind of hold your breath when you start to cross a bridge?

Well, now there are organizations and citizens trying to do something to fix that.

On Nov. 8, Illinois voters will get to have their say on something that's being referred to as the transportation lockbox amendment. In a nutshell, it will ask if the Illinois Constitution should be amended so that gas taxes, airplane fees, vehicle sticker fees and the like - collected for years in the state's road fund - should be restricted so that the money can be used only to fix roads and rebuild bridges and finance runways and replace railroading track and so forth.

A coalition of citizens and organizations called the Citizens to Protect Transportation Funding just spent $1 million to produce and air a 30-second ad that will be airing statewide to convince you to vote for this ballot question.

The ad says our roads and highways are crumbling and 4,200 bridges are in "poor condition." It says nearly $7 billion in transit-related taxes and fees have been swept from the state's road fund over 12 years to be used for other purposes, including $500 million last year.

Mike Sturino, president and CEO of the Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association, said the group pushing passage of the amendment has collected more than $2.5 million for its campaign and will have another ad out before Election Day.

He said 34 other states have amended their constitutions to protect transit funds, with Wisconsin being the latest in 2014. So why not us?

Sturino argued a constitutional amendment would bring overdue accountability to part of state government. "It kind of goes to greater accountability for the folks in Springfield to do what they said they were going to do," he said. "They do have a problem with broken promises."

That they certainly do. Hundreds upon hundreds of funds get raided regularly whenever things get tough in Springfield. And, Sturino added, everyone benefits from a safe transit system.

It's tough to argue with any of that unless, of course, you have loved ones in public schools or you're owed a public pension, or you benefit from or work in any of scores of human service fields.

This is the problem in Illinois right now. Everyone is owed something because we've been living beyond our means.

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that public pensions were a constitutionally protected right. Their benefits, once promised, cannot be "diminished or impaired." That exact wording was in the constitution. And if the transportation lockbox question passes, transit funding could be just as untouchable as public pensions.

Because of that constitutional language, Illinoisans are going to have to find $116 billion to pay off our pension debt. And then there's the $8 billion in other unpaid state bills. But if this question passes Nov. 8, we won't be borrowing any more from the road fund to cover any of those debts.

We don't even have a budget now. When we do, it will be only so big. And if we cut off a slice for pensions and we cut off a slice for transportation and we cut off a hunk for interest on overdue bills, well, you get the picture: We'll be pie-less before we get to anything else.

Only four members of the 177-member General Assembly voted against the amendment. One of them was Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook.

Nekritz said she supports transportation, "but this, I thought, tied our hands and takes away a lot of flexibility."

"We don't do that for education, we don't to that for funding for the disabled, we don't do this for prisons or any other government function," Nekritz added.

Sturino said the transit question was a way for Illinoisans to tell elected officials "enough" with their "self-inflicted" financial problems.

But Laurence Msall, president of the public finance watchdog Civic Federation, strongly disagreed.

"It is incongruity that we would seek to amend our constitution, not to provide the savings and the unfunded liability of our pensions, not to provide equal protection for school children, not to provide a more fair and equitable way to draw legislative maps, but to protect one interest group," he said. "The teachers, mental health advocates, people who care about education and higher education need to think very clearly" about this constitutional change.

It's one that could have us careening into an even deeper ditch.