State Republicans say gas tax increase needed for construction projects

By Greg Bishop 
Illinois News Network

A leading state Senate Republican says expanded gambling in Illinois could pay off existing capital construction projects, but there would still need to be a gas tax increase for future ones.

Associated General Contractors of Illinois Executive Director Bill Frey said the need for updates to infrastructure is obvious.

“We know where the road miles are,” Frey said. “We know where the bridges are. We know how to fix them and it’s up to the legislature to pick a revenue stream, or a whole bunch of revenue streams” to pay for it.

State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, said there’s already a billion dollars outstanding from the 2009 capital plan that could be covered by expanding gambling.

Part of the changes in the gambling expansion bill, Syverson said, is for video gaming to allow higher bets.

“So there’s a technical change in video gaming which would generate more money for the capital plan to allow the issuance of the last billion of the 2009 plan,” he said.

Gambling expansion legislation that stalled in the General Assembly this year also would add more casinos in Illinois but would take longer for new revenues to kick in.

“[Revenue from] the casinos would still be a year or two years away,” Syverson said, “by the time the gaming board approved them and the local communities approved them and they actually build the structure for that.”

The gambling expansion bill passed the Senate and Syverson said the governor is on board. It’s just up to the House.

Increased revenue from land-based casinos could go to capital programs if the legislature approves such a move. But Syverson said a future capital plan may require a gas tax increase because, he says, people are driving less and vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient.

“It may make sense to be looking at a small gas tax increase, something maybe as little as five cents,” Syverson said. “But if the feds do a capital program then we could be matching those dollars.”

Illinoisans currently pay the 18th-highest gas taxes in the nation. But because Illinois is one of only seven U.S. states that applies a sales tax on gas, that ranking fluctuates significantly depending on the actual price of gas. When gas prices were closer to $4 a gallon a few years ago, Illinoisans paid the third-highest gas taxes in the nation.

Syverson’s comments come just after lawmakers in July overrode a veto from Gov. Bruce Rauner to raise the state income tax by 32 percent, although Syverson voted against that tax increase.

Groups like the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association and the Illinois Association of Convenience Stores have long opposed a gas tax increase, saying that would lead to people going across state lines for gas, which would mean consumers would purchase other products in other states as well.

Syverson justifies a gas tax increase saying “half of that revenue goes to local governments so those local governments have more money to fix their roads, which then lessens the need to raise property taxes.”

Frey, who is also a member of the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, said thanks to the recently voter-approved Lockbox Amendment, gas tax funds will be for infrastructure only.

“And then you’re going to see it,” Frey said. “You’re going to see it. You’re going to see that project built. You’re going to see that improvement and you’re going to feel it when you drive over it.”

The Illinois Department of Transportation provided a plan that expects $11.65 billion to be available for fiscal years 2018 through 2023. The feds would cover $8.8 billion, the state would cover $2.1 billion and local governments would cover over $600 million.

Rauner said last week cuts in state spending and public-private partnerships, not increased taxes, could cover paying down borrowing for long term projects.

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