“Lockbox” amendment will decide how transportation funds can be spent

Heather Weiner

Heather Weiner is formerly the Illinois Policy’s Government Affairs Staff Attorney.

Heather Weiner
October 6, 2016

“Lockbox” amendment will decide how transportation funds can be spent

Voters will have the opportunity in November to decide, by way of a constitutional amendment, whether lawmakers should be able to divert transportation funds toward other priorities.

Illinois voters will have the opportunity Nov. 8 to vote on an amendment to the state constitution that would create a “lockbox” for transportation funds.

This amendment would put stronger restrictions on the use of revenues collected from taxes and fees flowing into the state’s road fund, such as “motor fuel taxes, vehicle registration fees and other taxes and user fees dedicated to public highways, roads, streets, bridges, mass transit (buses and rail), ports or airports.” It would not, however, apply to sales taxes applied on top of the motor fuel taxes at the pump.

Lawmakers have often diverted money from the road fund to other projects and budget priorities, though the purpose of the fund is infrastructure maintenance and improvements.

In the spring session, both chambers of the General Assembly voted by overwhelming bipartisan margins to send this question to voters this November. Only four legislators voted “no” on the measure in the House, and it passed the Senate unanimously. There are good reasons to think this measure is a reasonable way to discipline lawmakers. But implications and questions about the promotion of special interests that may also give some voters pause.

A coalition that included organized labor, various road builder and contractor associations, as well as chambers of commerce, advocated for the lockbox amendment in the General Assembly. These proponents and the resolution’s legislative sponsors call the proposal a “common sense” solution to Illinois’ infrastructure problems, as it would handcuff a legislature they see as out-of-control.

The advocates highlight over $6 billion diverted in the last ten years from the road fund to plug non-infrastructure budget holes. Supporters further cite the lack of state budget as evidence that a message needs to be sent to lawmakers about budget accountability and spending money in the ways they have promised to—a message looming large for many Illinois voters this year.

There are, however, also concerns with the proposal. Opponents have said that while infrastructure needs should be funded, this limits the state’s ability to balance all the competing interests in the budget process. Those who oppose the amendment have likened its potential effects to the rigidity of Illinois’ constitutionally enshrined pension payments. They note that much like the state’s pension payments, locked funding for another specific budget issue may inhibit the ability to fund other priorities, such as education and social services.

In an editorial, The News-Gazette called the amendment a “fraud” on the public “brought to you by cash-rich building contractors and labor unions who want state dollars set aside for their exclusive benefit.” The critique also cited that a transfer from the road fund to the general revenue fund played a part in the short-term budget compromise and posited the question of whether “voters rather have seen the public schools not open so the highway lobby could fatten its profit margin?”

The Chicago Tribune noted that this lockbox will certainly be useful for interested parties if gas taxes are hiked down the road, even if those hikes were not feasible in an election year.

Interestingly, this was the only constitutional amendment to make it through the legislature, though over 90 were introduced during this two-year General Assembly term. Others were either never released from the Rules Committee and were therefore never considered, debated or voted upon, or they were killed in the legislative process, such as a resolutions to abolish the lieutenant governor’s office or to overhaul the system of drawing legislative district maps. It is unclear why this amendment was allowed to proceed through the Democrat-controlled process when other ideas were stalled.

To summarize:

A “yes” vote on the amendment means a voter would like transportation funds to be restricted to designated transportation purposes.

A “no” vote on the amendment means a voter would like lawmakers to retain the flexibility to use transportation funds for other purposes.

According to the Illinois Constitution, the proposal will be adopted if it attains either of two possible “yes” vote counts: approval by either three-fifths of those voters who vote on the amendment itself or approval by a simple majority (50 percent plus one) of those voting in the election.

The amendment takes effect and would be added to the Illinois Constitution immediately upon the voters’ adoption.

Prepared by the Illinois Policy Institute

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