Editorials

Locking up highway taxes may be fast lane to other taxes

Drivers in Illinois could begin paying double the gasoline tax on July 1, from 19 cents to 38 cents per gallon, if Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the legislation passed recently by the General Assembly.
Drivers in Illinois could begin paying double the gasoline tax on July 1, from 19 cents to 38 cents per gallon, if Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the legislation passed recently by the General Assembly. dholtmann@bnd.com

You’ve likely seen the ads for the highway construction tax lockbox amendment to the Illinois Constitution, or rather you should have after the unions and construction companies ponied up about $3 million to convince you.

Interesting that they have enough to gain from this amendment that they are willing to spend that kind of money to convince you to pass it.

A poll found 80 percent of likely voters in favor of it. The amendment went on the ballot with almost unanimous support from both the Illinois House and Senate — not such lamaker support was found for term limits or independent legislative map amendments.

So what’s not to like about telling Springfield lawmakers to keep their mitts off a gasoline tax that is collected for roads?

First, the state auditor general claimed lawmakers raided $13.7 million from the fund between 2002 and 2012, spending less than half of what was in the pot on highways. Another analysis found 73 percent of the funds went to the correct purpose during that decade, with lawmakers getting better during recent years. The problem’s not as bad as the campaign is telling you it is.

Second, when you wall off one source of tax dollars and say “don’t touch,” the lawmakers will just use your vote to come at you from a different direction to get tax money for “protecting the middle class” or “guaranteeing essential services.”

Third, Illinois has more than 700 special funds. Why are highway funds any more special and deserving of constitutional protection than, say, our regularly underfunded school funds? The Illinois Constitution already calls for the state to be the primary funding source for our schools, which most of us see as 51 percent, but lawmakers interpreted as 26 percent in 2014.

It’s hard to trust lawmakers to do the right thing after they’ve been doing the wrong thing so often for so long, but at some point there will be unintended consequences from locking up this money. Those consequences may come during a disaster, or during an income tax debate, or when some youngster needs a school book.

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