By Sara Burnett
CHICAGO — Anyone who’s driven across Illinois on crumbling highways, commuted on regularly delayed Metra trains or sat for hours on congested expressways knows the state’s transportation system is in desperate need of an upgrade.
But the candidates for governor have different opinions on how to pay for it.
The Illinois Department of Transportation estimates it will take billions more in annual spending to maintain and make needed improvements to existing highways and transit systems. That doesn’t include money for airports, waterways or freight lines.
Illinois’ transportation system has been on what one regional group calls a “starvation diet” as federal funding withered and Illinois faced years of budget troubles. The state motor fuel tax hasn’t been increased in decades, and as cars have become more fuel efficient it hasn’t kept up with the rising costs of construction, experts say.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner supports passing a capital bill, though he isn’t saying how Illinois would pay for it. His opponent in the March 20 primary, state Rep. Jeanne Ives, favors cutting spending in other areas.
Democrats seeking the nomination are state Sen. Daniel Biss, businessman Chris Kennedy, billionaire J.B. Pritzker, educator Bob Daiber, activist Tio Hardiman and physician Robert Marshall. They’ve floated a range of revenue options including a higher gas tax and a so-called “Florida Tax” on people who earn income in Illinois but claim residency elsewhere.
Here’s a look at where the candidates stand:
Kennedy, Biss and Pritzker all say they’d fund transportation improvements primarily by changing Illinois’ income tax system from a flat tax to a graduated tax, in which the highest earners pay a higher rate. But they won’t say what those rates should be, and changing the system requires changing the state constitution.
Kennedy, of Kenilworth, also wants to “tax people who are taking advantage of the system” through what he’s dubbed the “Florida Tax.” That’s a nod to people who work in Illinois but live in places with a lower or no income tax, such as Florida.
“We should be taxing the income they make when they work in Illinois,” he says.
Pritzker supports a capital bill for infrastructure, calling it an investment that “creates jobs, improves the economy and pays off for years to come.” Spokeswoman Galia Slayen says he’ll maximize federal dollars “unlike Bruce Rauner.”
Pritzker, a Chicago entrepreneur and philanthropist, also told the Daily Herald last month that with vehicles becoming more fuel-efficient, Illinois should explore a vehicle miles traveled tax, though he said it should “only be a test” because such a tax must be carefully implemented.
“It’s only fair if you’re on a road and traveling on that road that you should pay your fair share,” Pritzker said.
Biss opposes a vehicle miles traveled tax.
“Installing mileage tracking devices in each car would constitute a serious violation of privacy and taxing per mile driven rather than per gallon of gas purchased reduces incentives to invest in fuel efficient cars,” the Evanston lawmaker said.
Biss said in addition to the graduated income tax, he’d fund transportation improvements by closing corporate tax loopholes and imposing a tax on financial transactions such as the buying and selling of stocks and other assets at places like the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He says the tax could generate billions, though critics like Kennedy say it’s not feasible.
Daiber, a regional schools superintendent from Marine, is the only candidate to say he supports raising the gas tax, to fund a capital program “of possibly $30 billion.” He says raising the 19-cent-per-gallon tax to 40 cents is “economically justifiable,” based on inflation and greater fuel efficiency, but his campaign says Daiber “is not politically prepared to support that figure or any exact figure.”
Hardiman, of Chicago, says he “would not even consider” a vehicle miles tax or higher gas tax. Like Biss, he favors a financial transaction tax.
Marshall, of Burr Ridge, opposes any tax increase. He proposes legalizing marijuana to raise needed revenue.
Rauner’s campaign says the first-term governor from Winnetka opposes raising the gas tax or imposing a vehicle miles traveled tax, but noted he has supported passing a capital bill.
Efforts to strike a deal with Democrats who control the Legislature have been unsuccessful, however.
The campaign referred questions about how Rauner would pay for a capital plan to his state-funded press office. Spokeswoman Rachel Bold said a capital bill is “something the administration is looking into” and hinted details could come in Rauner’s Feb. 14 budget speech.
“Putting money into the state’s infrastructure is a good long-term investment,” she said. “Our team is currently working on our budget proposal for the next fiscal year. We look forward to telling you more at the budget address.”
Ives, of Wheaton, says people in Illinois are overtaxed and she won’t support any new taxes. She says she would reduce the amount of money needed “by striking the pork projects that usually accompany transportation and infrastructure plans.”
She also proposed cutting spending to free up money for infrastructure. Among her proposals is addressing Illinois’ pension crisis by reducing the number of state employees, freezing salaries and renegotiating contracts so state workers pay a larger share of health care costs. Ives also would reduce the number of people on Medicaid, by implementing work requirements and conducting more frequent eligibility checks.