Friday, March 27, 2009

Transit and taxpayers

By Bethany Jaeger
Mass transit advocates say Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed capital program needs an overhaul and relies on “fuzzy math,” and they look to an increase in the state’s motor fuel tax to help pump more money into transportation projects.

Quinn said this week that he wants to see the start of a capital program approved by the legislature by April 3. “I think it should be for roads, bridges and public transit. We shouldn’t forget that one of the key things of reducing our reliance on petroleum and foreign oil is having good public transit, as well as improving our roads and bridges.”

Yet, his proposal to provide about $4.6 billion for mass transit systems over five years doesn’t satisfy Chicago-based civic organizations. They said that Quinn’s plan relies more on federal funds and matching grants, including only about $1.5 billion in new state spending for transit.

“It’s not even enough money to cover the basic maintenance and repair needs to keep the [Chicago] region’s transit network in its current condition, much less to upgrade the transit network,” said Brian Imus, state director of Illinois Public Interest Research Group. He joined leaders of Chicago Metropolis 2020 and the Metropolitan Planning Council today in a teleconference.

Given the economy, a business and labor-based group called the Transportation for Illinois Coalition recently reduced it’s request for transportation infrastructure from $23 billion over five years to $13.5 billion over five years, but that would only fund a “minimally adequate, maintenance- and safety-focused program.”

To reach the $13.5 billion, it would take about a 13-cent increase in the state’s motor fuel tax, said Chicago Metropolis 2020 Vice President Jim LaBelle. The motor fuel tax has been 19 cents a gallon since 1990. If it were adjusted for inflation, it would be about 32 cents, he said.

Quinn, however, opposes the motor fuel tax increase. The idea has support from Senate President John Cullerton, and the House currently is considering HB 1, which would increase the tax by 8 cents a gallon.

LaBelle said his organization would support a motor fuel tax increase if it were accompanied by reforms to the way the state prioritizes construction projects and distributes the money. The group supports HB 2359, Rep. Kathy Ryg’s bill that we wrote about earlier this week. It would create regional transportation policy groups to advise the Illinois Department of Transportation when ranking projects.

Peter Skosey, vice president at the Metropolitan Planning Council, agreed with the need for a new planning process. “We for too long have spent our dollars based upon arbitrary geographies and political clout and less upon strategic investments.”

Watch whether Ryg’s measure combines with Rep. John Bradley’s 8-cent increase in the motor fuel tax to create a new revenue source, as well as a new way of distributing that money to transportation projects.

The state's TAB

By Jamey Dunn

The state’s new Taxpayer Action Board, created by Gov. Pat Quinn by executive order, held its first meeting today. The board plans to explore only ways to reduce spending, not ways to find new revenue sources, according to Tom Johnson, chairman of the new board and president of the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois. (He’s also a former director of the Illinois Department of Revenue during Gov. Jim Thompson’s administration.)

The board is supposed to make recommendations by May 22, nine days before the state constitutional deadline for the General Assembly to adjourn for the summer.

The board is charged with proposing ways to streamline government operations to save money, particularly for Medicaid, education, human services, as well as pensions and health care benefits for state workers.

The board is comprised of former lawmakers, policy experts, educators, business leaders, tax experts and individuals from health care and human services. Organizations such as the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Illinois Farm Bureau also have members on the board.

Jerry Stermer, Quinn’s chief of staff, said at the meeting that the board was formed to get a new perspective on the state’s deficit from people who represent their communities. “Maybe we’ve asked some of these questions before, but let’s ask them again. Let’s ask them in a different way, and let’s see if there are some redesigns, some reshuffling of the deck,” he said.

The state Senate also formed a special Deficit Reduction Committee, which issued a bare bones report with pages of testimony but few recommendations after four weeks of public hearings. See more here.

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