Paying at the pump has been a little cheaper lately in Illinois. Gas was hovering around $2 a gallon in some parts of Springfield on Friday. That's a huge improvement over last month, when AAA said the average price of a gallon of gas in Springfield was $2.502. It beats a year ago, when it was $2.351 a gallon.
That financial relief, though, comes as talk of increasing Illinois' gas tax has begun to percolate more, as lawmakers prepare to return to Springfield next month.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has suggested raising the state's gas tax by 20 to 30 cents a gallon as a way to start addressing the billions in deferred infrastructure maintenance — problems that only get worse the longer they are put off. The Lockbox Amendment passed in 2016 mandated that gas taxes and related fees collected by the state should only be spent on infrastructure needs, but it hasn't addressed the issue of whether that funding is adequate. Most motorists would agree it isn't.
Randy Blankenhorn, the secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation, said the average person in Illinois spends about 50 cents a day on transportation, and notes that Illinois' funding lags other states. He thinks an increase in the gas tax and vehicle registration fees is inevitable if the state wants to fix its chronic funding problem. And perhaps it is. But limiting the discussion to one source of possible funding for a much-needed capital plan would be a mistake.
The last time Illinois raised the gas tax — from 16 cents to its current 19 cents per gallon — was in 1990. It's easy to say that inflation alone is a reason to increase it a few cents in order to fund much-needed road improvements. Proponents also point out that Illinois is on the low end of gasoline taxes. Only Missouri, with its 17 cents per gallon tax, is lower than Illinois. Kentucky charges 26 cents a gallon, Indiana 29 cents and Iowa and Wisconsin are both just under 31 cents per gallon.
But Illinois and Indiana charge sales tax on gas. There also is a federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, and other units of government can add their own taxes. So in Illinois, you wind up paying about 55.91 cents per gallon in taxes, according to the American Petroleum Institute. The API says the national average tax rate on a gallon of gas was 52.61 cents as of July.
Yes, Illinois needs a capital plan. Yes, the state hasn't raised its share of the gas tax for almost three decades. Yes, those who use infrastructure should help pay to maintain it. But it would be a mistake to limit the discussion of how to fund the needed improvements to one source, especially as greater fuel efficiencies make reliance on gas taxes even more problematic.
Outgoing Gov. Bruce Rauner has called for public-private partnerships. Incoming Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said a capital plan should leverage federal money, which would mean working with the Trump Administration, something some Illinois Democrats don't always seem eager to do. Pritzker also hasn't ruled out expanding gaming as another possible revenue source. Blankenhorn, who said he was speaking for himself, thinks vehicle registration fees should be part of the mix, too.
Some of those ideas don't thrill us, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be on the table.
Lawmakers need to consider the big picture, including the impact of other potential taxes and fees on the table. Pritzker has called for changing the state's income tax system to a graduated tax. Even if he manages to contain that to the wealthiest Illinoisans, as he has promised to do, it still means more taxes for at least some Illinois residents. If recreational marijuana and sports betting are legalized, count on there being taxes and fees on those too. Locally, the city of Springfield raised the sales tax rate earlier this year, and it will go up again in 2019 after a successful Nov. 6 referendum by area schools as a way to fund facilities improvements throughout Sangamon County.
A capital plan is needed, and soon. But it should be done right and as fairly as possible.
-- Springfield State Journal-Register