Was corruption at the heart of Illinois’ gas tax hike?

Was corruption at the heart of Illinois’ gas tax hike?

The target, state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, is as clouted as they come.

A primary player in Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s infrastructure plan saw his home and offices raided by the FBI and IRS Tuesday morning.

The target, state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, is as clouted as they come.

Sandoval rose to prominence with the help of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Hispanic Democratic Organization, a disbanded political patronage operation. He shares political turf on Chicago’s Southwest Side not only with indicted Ald. Ed Burke, but also with House Speaker Mike Madigan. And he’s one of the longest-serving state senators in Illinois with more than 16 years under his belt.

Sandoval has also held the coveted role of Senate Transportation Committee chairman for a decade. It’s from that perch that he pushed for a record-breaking gas tax hike and other tax and fee hikes this spring to fund billions of dollars in new construction projects. Sandoval wanted the capital bill so badly he even took the heat for sponsoring a bill containing an even larger gas tax hike, before ratcheting down to a mere doubling.

Capital bills are a feeding frenzy for special interests. And Sandoval held the keys to the kitchen. “Governor signs Sandoval’s $45 billion infrastructure improvement package,” boasts a June press release from the state senator’s website.

Might the feds want to have a word about some of those projects?

According to the Chicago Tribune, authorities are looking into allegations Sandoval used his public office to steer business in exchange for private kickbacks. That’s all we know about the raids so far, other than the fact that prosecutors would have needed to present some serious evidence to justify cracking the Statehouse dome, not to mention Sandoval’s Cicero office and his home. The state senator has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

The Illinois Policy Institute released a report ahead of the capital bill vote this year warning about the need for project selection reform to guard against waste and abuse of taxpayer resources.

“[T]axpayers will get far less value from a capital bill if projects are selected for political reasons rather than based on a neutral cost-benefit analysis,” it said. “Before adopting a capital bill, lawmakers should implement controls to ensure spending goes first to needed projects.”

One model Illinois could easily copy is Virginia’s Smart Scale method for project selection.

Lawmakers did the opposite.

The final infrastructure plan included no meaningful, objective scoring criteria for projects, so politics dominated. And they went even further in the wrong direction by gifting each lawmaker a special pot of money to dole out on whatever infrastructure projects they wished in their respective districts. Politico reported Senate Democrats received about $6 million for projects in their districts compared to about $3 million for Senate Republicans. In the Illinois House, the split was about $3 million for Democrats and about $1.5 million for Republicans.

The Civic Federation declared Pritzker’s capital plan “show[ed] no evidence of comprehensive planning to prioritize projects” and contained spending with no justification.

But Illinoisans will still pay for it all.

The $45 billion plan will be funded by $20.6 billion of new debt and 14 new taxes and fees, including a doubling of the Illinois motor fuel tax, increases in vehicle registration fees, and licensing and taxes on expanded gambling.

Springfield leadership had a muted response to the Sandoval news.

“It doesn’t look good, but we don’t know what it’s about,” Democratic Senate President John Cullerton told the Tribune. “We don’t know if he’s the subject matter, but it looks like it’s a criminal investigation.” Sandoval, for now, still holds his transportation committee chairmanship.

In the face of persistent corruption, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has pushed for independently drawn ward maps, an empowered inspector general and limits on outside employment for aldermen, among other reforms.

In the face of the same in Springfield, Pritzker, Cullerton and Madigan have been sitting on their hands. Maybe the threat of corruption charges derailing Pritzker’s treasured infrastructure plan will spur them to action.

That will depend on the FBI’s next move.

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