Illinois House bill seeks to end waste and corruption in infrastructure spending

Illinois House bill seeks to end waste and corruption in infrastructure spending

House Bill 253 would create data-driven process for selecting future infrastructure projects in an attempt to end wasteful and politically motivated spending.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker successfully pushed 20 tax hikes worth $4.6 billion through the General Assembly in 2019, with many dedicated to funding the governor’s $45 billion infrastructure proposal. At least $1.4 billion of that spending went to wasteful spending and pork projects for the politically connected. Included in that tab are dog parks, snowmobile paths, pickleball courts, school playgrounds, swimming pools, arts grants to be handed out by the wife of then- House Speaker Mike Madigan, and much more. Illinoisans already pay some of the highest taxes in the country dedicated to infrastructure spending, and this should be spent effectively.

A measure before the Illinois Senate, House Bill 253, would require future infrastructure projects to be selected based on evidence about their costs and benefits to taxpayers. The bill passed 112-0 through the Illinois House on April 22.

With approximately $226 billion in net debt, Illinois has the second highest debt-to-GDP ratio among U.S. states and a debt burden of $52,000 for every Illinois household. Illinois should spend on infrastructure and transportation more efficiently, funding projects that have the best returns on investment rather than pet projects politicians push through for their districts at the expense of Illinois taxpayers as a whole. This is the problem that HB 253 aims to address.

Similar to Virginia’s SMART Scale program, HB 253 directs transportation officials to create a risk- and performance-based methodology for weighing the costs and benefits of each proposed infrastructure project. This means that under this bill, the allocation of infrastructure spending would be based on how important an infrastructure project is and how much benefit it offers for taxpayer dollars. Additionally, because of the merit-based methodology using factors such as congestion mitigation and economic development, infrastructure proposals will be subject to a process with less political pressures than the status quo. Instead of politicians deciding the specific projects to which money is allocated, the methodology that will be created by the Illinois Department of Transportation will prioritize projects that deliver the highest returns for taxpayer dollars and ensure spending is first allocated to the most important, necessary, and damaged infrastructure that can provide the benefits that Illinois residents most need.

SMART Scale evaluates project proposals submitted by local agencies, weighting key factors such as congestion mitigation and economic development along with the cost effectiveness of proposed projects. According to Virginia transportation officials, the program has been successful in reducing project costs and improving the public benefits of infrastructure spending.  Additionally, local agencies are incentivized to spend less on achieving project goals in order to increase the likelihood of receiving funding. Officials have also said that this methodology has allowed for a clearer view into why some projects are accepted and others are rejected, creating more transparency in the funding process. This transparency allows taxpayers to see where their tax dollars are spent and to hold politicians more accountable for their decisions.

Additionally, SMART Scale focuses on funding infrastructure repair and maintenance rather than new infrastructure projects. This is important because maintaining infrastructure has a much higher return on investment than new infrastructure projects, delivering more benefits for taxpayers as spending is allocated more efficiently on projects that provide higher benefits rather than on the highly visible, costly projects that are popular among politicians.

In addition to higher quality infrastructure, HB 253 offers one other major benefit: it improves infrastructure without the need for additional tax hikes. Illinois residents have long been subject to increasing taxes in order to fund the state’s spending as a result of its extremely high debt burden, including infrastructure spending as was seen in 2019. HB 253 would more efficiently allocate current infrastructure spending to projects with the best returns and, while not directly affecting taxes, would make additional taxes for infrastructure less likely.

HB 253 very closely resembles the Virginia legislation that helped create the SMART Scale program. By removing politics from the infrastructure spending process and introducing merit-based decisions instead, the bill would bring Illinois many of the same benefits that the program has brought to Virginia. By implementing a SMART Scale-style process for selecting project in Illinois, HB 253 can give taxpayers new confidence that they’re getting the most bang for their buck.

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