DECATUR — Monday starts a new era in Illinois politics, one that area lawmakers and others say could bring major legislation such as a capital bill to fix the state’s crumbling roads and legalization of recreational marijuana.
“I think everybody feels that it's time to make some investments in some of the public infrastructure around the state,” said Ryan McCrady, president of the Economic Development Corp. of Decatur and Macon County. McCrady added state roads in the Decatur area, including U.S. 51, are in need of repair.
With incoming Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s inauguration, close observers of state politics are hopeful the change will end years of partisan gridlock between the Democrat-majority General Assembly and outgoing Republican Bruce Rauner.
Ongoing disagreement between Rauner and Democratic lawmakers led to in a two-year standoff over the state budget that left Illinois with more than $12 billion in unpaid bills and crippling cuts to social service agencies and public universities. In the end, legislators from Rauner’s own party joined with Democrats to raise the state income tax from 3.75 percent to 4.95 percent to end the stalemate in 2017.
Yet even with Democrats in firm control of both legislative chambers, Pritzker and his party face some challenges in pursuing their priorities.
“Downstate members need to be prepared to cast difficult votes,” said state Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill. “There’s a lot of complaining and finger-pointing that happens from some lawmakers, but when a tough vote comes up those people run for the hills. That sort of behavior has to stop to get those things done.”
Illinois roads and bridges are deteriorating faster than the state’s department of transportation can afford to fix them. It’s a headache for drivers dodging potholes, but also a concern for business leaders who consider the state’s network of roads and highways vital to the economy.
In 2017, IDOT officials estimated a third of the 16,000 miles of state roads would be in disrepair by 2022 if no changes were made to its maintenance program.
To pass a new infrastructure plan, lawmakers must find a way to pay for it — likely through tax or fee increases.
The largest source of state road funding is its motor fuel tax, which costs drivers 19 cents for every gallon pumped and has been flat since 1990. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel last month advocated for increasing the gas tax by 20 to 30 cents per gallon to pay for road construction.
Highway contractors, labor unions and transportation advocates argue that failure to increase the tax over time has made it impossible to maintain the system with decades worth of rising costs and inflation.
“If the state is going to use the money for actual projects and improving the condition of the roads and bridges, I think the voters are supportive of revenue enhancements for that,” said Kevin Burke, executive vice president of the Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association.
Decatur Republican state Rep. Dan Caulkins, who was sworn into the General Assembly last week, challenged the idea that there aren’t enough state dollars for road improvements.
“If we truly look at every dollar spent and how it's been spent, maybe there's a different way we take care of this infrastructure” issue, said Caulkins, who is skeptical of increasing the state’s gas tax.
Democratic state Rep. Sue Scherer of Decatur said she’s keeping an open mind.
“I see where people are coming from that they feel like they're taxed to death,” she said, “so I'm trying to keep an open mind on whatever kind of ideas people have out there. I'm not sure the gas tax would something that would go through or not.”
Manar said an infrastructure bill will need bipartisan support, even though Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers.
“And it needs to be paid for,” he said, “and how to pay for it is today is an unanswered question.”
Manar said he had no position yet on whether the state should increase the gas tax to fund a capital bill.
While it might not be tied to infrastructure, one revenue generator that policymakers say could get strong consideration in 2019 is the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, an idea that Pritzker supported during his campaign.
Illinois is one of 33 states that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. Ten states have also legalized the drug for recreational use. The governor-elect has said such a move could bring in as much as $1 billion per year.
It’s still unclear how such a law would work in practical terms, area lawmakers and law enforcement officials say.
Macon County Sheriff Tony Brown said he was concerned how legalizing the drug would affect the ability for officers to charge impaired drivers.
“With alcohol we have the breath testers,” he said. “With cannabis we just don't have that technology available to us to test right here on scene to see if someone is under the influence.”
Scherer said she also has yet to decide her position on legalizing weed, and said she will listen to voters and vote based on the feedback she receives from her district.
“Listen, listen, listen is my goal,” she said. “If this is what people want, then that's my vote.”
Caulkins said he will not vote for legalizing recreational marijuana in Illinois. “I think it’s morally wrong. I won’t vote for it, it’s not the right thing to do.”
Manar, who said he plans to hold a town hall meeting in the coming weeks to hear from constituents on both sides of the issue before staking a position, noted that with the exception of Vermont, the nine other states that have already legalized weed for recreational did so through a ballot initiative. “I personally think that would be a good idea, having a referendum on the ballot and then there can be a statewide debate.”
While advocates of legal weed argue it could provide much needed tax revenue to the cash-strapped state, both Manar and Caulkins said they did not believe taxes charged on marijuana sales would be enough to make a dent in Illinois’ chronic fiscal problems.
“I think the general view right now is that legalizing recreational use is going to seemingly overnight solve the state's budget challenges, and that’s false,” Manar said.
Caulkins said other states that have already moved to legalize marijuana are not seeing the positive economic benefits they were hoping for.
“We ought to learn from (other states’) mistakes and I think they're going to quickly realize that legalization of marijuana has been a mistake,” he said.
Brown said he was skeptical of the idea, but that agencies such as the sheriff’s office would enforce the law — whatever it is.
“You're talking to a former DARE instructor,” Brown said referring to the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program that became popular in American schools in the 1980s. “I still truly believe it's a gateway drug.
“But that being said, it's up to legislators to make that determination.”