Illinois motorists over Independence Day weekend were greeted with higher prices at the pump.
The driving cause? Illinois’ gas tax, which doubled overnight, making Illinoisans subject to the highest state and local gas tax burden in the Midwest. This will cost the average driver around $100 more per year.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker has defended that gas tax hike as necessary to repair roads, bridges and highways that are “falling apart.”
Illinoisans deserve a pothole-free future. But are they getting a bang for their gas tax buck? Or is Pritzker’s $45 billion “Rebuild Illinois” program just another vehicle to deliver special favors?
A deep dive into the capital plan points toward the latter, showing at least $1.25 billion in pork-barrel projects.
“Pork” is often used as a buzzword. But it’s important to understand what it really means. Pork-barrel spending is made up of those special projects injected by lawmakers to bring home the bacon for their constituents. And when embarking on a massive new capital plan, it’s exactly the behavior experts warn against.
Pritzker’s plan “shows no evidence of comprehensive planning to prioritize projects,” according to the nonpartisan Civic Federation. Lack of good budgeting basics, such as focusing on infrastructure maintenance over flashy ribbon cuttings, is exactly how Illinois ended up with its current infrastructure problems.
Here are just a few examples of pork in the new capital plan:
The state will spend $98 million on noise abatement at the Chicago Belt Railway Yard in Bedford Park, which happens to be in the suburban portion of House Speaker Mike Madigan’s district.
The Illinois Arts Council, chaired by Madigan’s wife Shirley, will get $50 million in capital plan funds.
Rush University Medical Center, part of a private health system with annual revenues of $2.4 billion, will receive a $14 million grant from Illinois taxpayers.
The state will send $50 million in capital plan grants to parks and recreational units for improvements, such as pickleball courts. The Chicago Park District will receive $15 million for a new field house at Jackie Robinson Park.
Taxpayers will float $5 million to Northwestern University to purchase new science equipment. The private university boasts an endowment of $11 billion.
In a state with solid fiscal footing, some of these projects might make sense. But Illinois’ debt problem is the worst in the nation. Leaders have to make tough choices about nice-to-haves versus need-to-haves.
And keep in mind, this is just the pork that’s out in the open.
The capital bill also sends hundreds of millions of dollars into the abyss.
For example, it includes $580 million across 42 separate appropriations to the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for “grants to local governments, school districts and community-based providers for costs associated with infrastructure improvements.”
Part of these secretive grants will fund “member initiatives” – otherwise known as slush funds for lawmakers’ pet projects. Politico Illinois reported Senate Democrats will receive $6 million for projects in their districts and Senate Republicans will receive $3 million, while the split in the House is $3 million to $1.5 million. So along with putting specific line items of pork in the capital budget, Pritzker went direct-to-consumer.
This sort of political waste isn’t surprising.
The hometown of Pritzker, Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton does the same thing each year. Instead of letting city agencies make strategic planning decisions, each city alderman is gifted $1.3 million in “menu money” to play with as each wishes.
Meanwhile, the pain of the tax hikes to fund this behavior is all too real. Beyond the average Illinois family seeing their wallets squeezed, small businesses are facing dire consequences.
Pravin Patel runs a gas station located just a stone’s throw from the Wisconsin border in South Beloit, Illinois. He told the Rockford Register-Star he’s already taking home $2,000 less per day in gasoline sales.
And the gas tax hike wasn’t the only new cost imposed by the capital bill. Illinois drivers will face one of the highest fees in the nation for their license plate stickers. In January, standard vehicles weighing 8,000 pounds or less will see registration fees jump to $148 from $98. All other large vehicles, including trailers and buses, will see registration fee increases of $100.
Pritzker’s capital plan has lawmakers proving once again that they’re not willing to reform the way Springfield spends taxpayer money.
They’re not willing to give taxpayers basic transparency.
And they’re not willing to tke an objective look at project selection.
Voters deciding on a $3.4 billion progressive income tax hike in November should take note.
Austin Berg is a Chicago-based writer with the Illinois Policy Institute who wrote this column for The Center Square. Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.