PEORIA — A transportation amendment to the Illinois Constitution sailed through the Legislature by votes of 98-4 in the House and 55-0 in the Senate on its way to the Nov. 8 ballot. Brandon Phelps said that was closer than he expected.
“I thought it was a no-brainer,” said Phelps, a Democrat from Harrisburg who sponsored the House legislation for what supporters call the Safe Roads Amendment. “I’m surprised there were any no votes at all.”
The transportation proposal is the only constitutional amendment on the ballot. Although much of the discussion has focused on the sad state of roads and bridges in the state, Safe Roads supporters note the amendment does not call for a tax increase. They want a “lockbox” to ensure money allocated for public highways, roads, streets, bridges and mass transit is not diverted to other state expenses.
“Over the last 10 years alone, $6 billion has been swept from Illinois’ road fund because of waste and mismanagement in Springfield,” according to the website saferoadsamendment.com.
“If the amendment passes, transportation funding will be secured, and we will have the chance to make long overdue investments in our infrastructure. If the amendment fails,
money for transportation will continue to be at risk of mismanagement and abuse by Springfield,” according to the website.
The website, funded by Citizens to Protect Transportation Funding, includes a picture of a deadly Minnesota bridge collapse in 2007 with the headline, “Don’t take any chances.”
The votes against the proposal came from four Chicago-area Democrats, including Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook.
“I don’t feel like it’s good government,” she said. ”I would say that would elevate transportation funding above every other priority in Illinois,” such as education, prisons and other governmental responsibilities.
Phelps, however, cites a broad base of support for the amendment. “It’s one thing Democrats and Republicans actually agree on for the betterment of our state,” adding many unions and chambers of commerce also are on board.
The list of supporters on the Safe Roads website includes engineering and contractor companies, soybean and petroleum organizations, AAA Chicago, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois AFL-CIO, ironworkers and asphalt producers.
There are two ways the amendment can pass: by receiving yes votes from at least 60 percent of the people voting on the amendment itself, or by a majority of everyone voting in the election overall.
Nekritz said she is well-known as a strong advocate of transportation but joined Reps. Barbara Flynn Currie, Laura Fine and Pamela Reaves-Harris in opposing the amendment.
In a joint statement after their vote, they said, “Without a doubt, there should be strong protections for investment in our roads, bridges, ports and rails. But experience has demonstrated that unexpected events can have drastic impacts on our state budget. A natural disaster or economic turmoil can blow huge holes in a budget, even in states in healthy financial condition — which Illinois is decidedly not.”
Phelps does not think the state needs to wait for unexpected events to cause a financial crisis. “We’re in one right now,” he said.
Asked if it might be best for lawmakers to simply stop diverting transportation money, Phelps said, “this a guarantee. We can talk the talk, but this takes the temptation away.”
Phelps said he is talking about governors as well as legislators. Former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn closed the Tamms Correctional Center, and current Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill to reopen the Hardin County Work Camp, costing jobs in his district.
“We need to protect the (transportation money) from this governor and future governors and this Legislature and future legislatures,” he said.
Rauner had not taken a public position on the amendment late last month, telling reporters there were pros and cons to it.
“At this point it’s in front of the voters,” he said. “Let’s let the voters decide.”
Nekritz said she did not think legislators gave enough thought to possible complications when voting for the amendment.
There might be arguments about what constitutes a diversion of transportation funds. As one example she cited money from specialty license plates. Intended to fund charities, the money might be diverted to transportation, she said.
She said lawsuits are possible. “A lot of the shakeout happens in the judicial branch, not the legislative branch.”
Phelps said the Legislature can resolve problems through technical changes and cleanup language. He added that his concern about the state’s transportation infrastructure does not mean he is ignoring education.
“I do want to look at a lockbox for education,” he said. “If this one works well, that’s something we all need to look at.”
State Sen. Dave Koehler, a Peoria Democrat and a member of the transportation committee, said the amendment can help the state fund urgently needed upgrades to its roads and bridges.
“We really need to keep up with demands,” he said. “This is a way of assuring the public that what we say we’re going to do is what we’re going to do.”