"Infrastructure" is a boring bureaucratic word that undersells a serious problem facing Gov. J.B. Pritzker: Illinois needs to repair its crumbling roads and bridges. Is that a slightly sexier sell? Pritzker and lawmakers are hashing out plans for a six-year capital construction spending spree that could total an astonishing $41.5 billion. Now do we have your attention?
A significant investment in the upkeep of highways, mass transit systems and other, pardon us, infrastructure is overdue. The last capital program was approved a decade ago. Yet given Springfield's profligate ways, we've got two basic concerns: Where would all this money come from? And would it be spent responsibly on the right projects? We've got our doubts, especially since the governor expects to borrow billions of dollars to make the magic happen. As if Illinois taxpayers don't already face towering mountains of public debts.
A preliminary overview of the plan surfaced last week, with proponents urging the typical hurry-up-and-support-it timeline. The General Assembly is scheduled to be in session until May 31. The plan includes a list of investments including nearly $2.9 billion for the Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees CTA, Metra and Pace suburban buses, and $1 billion for reconstruction of a stretch of Interstate 80 in Will County. More about the selection process below.
The $41.5 billion would require tax increases and significant new borrowing by a state with the worst credit rating in the country. Details of the "Rebuild Illinois" plan are almost certain to change through negotiation. But (warning!) that doesn't mean legislators would agree to a smaller package – though that's what they should do. Looking back at Gov. Pat Quinn's 2009 capital spending project bill, the price tag increased over the months from $26 billion to $29 billion to $31 billion.
The Pritzker plan would be funded in part by about $1.8 billion annually in new or higher taxes and fees. The Illinois motor fuel tax would jump from 19 cents to 38 cents per gallon. The state currently doesn't tax ride-shares or parking, but that would change: Say hello to a $1 tax for all ride-shares and a 6 percent or higher parking garage tax. Vehicle registration fees would increase, though electric vehicles would pay $250 per year, not the crazy $1,000 one legislator proposed. Also on the docket: a new tax on cable, satellite and streaming services, a liquor tax increase and more. In Illinois, it's always more.
The Pritzker administration is counting on more than $10 billion in federal money and $6.6 billion in local government and privately sourced money. But the biggest share of the $41.5 billion would come from borrowing – bond sales supported by the tax hikes. The borrowing total could exceed a fat $17 billion, the Tribune reports. But what if officials get their revenue estimates wrong on the new taxes and fees? That's what happened to the last capital bill: The state had to scramble when video gaming revenue came in short.
As for the wish list of projects: We're certain many are vital, just as we're sure there are boondoggles contained therein, and probably some important pieces missing. Lawmakers have been working on this plan for a while, but the rush to pass this bill and others in the current session will lard up the total with freebie dams or community college investments for supportive legislators.
The Illinois economy requires infrastructure upkeep to promote growth. And yes, upfront money from bonding allows governments to build infrastructure that will last for many years. We recognize the need to raise taxes and fees to make that investment.
But the more that revenue comes from users, such as vehicle owners or transit riders, the fairer. Forcing all Illinois taxpayers to take on still more long-term debt is yet another case of today's Illinois politicians sticking tomorrow's Illinois citizens with paying for projects the pols ordered up way back in 2019.
What we don't want is another breathless exercise in maximalist borrowing. The governor and lawmakers should pare back this bill. Roads and bridges are in bad shape, but so are Illinois' finances.
– Chicago Tribune
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