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Shaw: Thumbs down to ‘Safe Roads’ amendment

The Safe Roads amendment that passed on the Nov. 8 ballot would amend the state constitution to protect revenue for transportation-related projects but could hurt other vital programs. | AP file photo.

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By the time Robert Frost’s most famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” was published in 1916, Illinois was becoming one of the most successful and innovative states in the country.

The Land of Lincoln, with its rich farmland and a growing big city on a protected lakefront, was attracting immigrants from Europe and migrants from the South; the Cubs were relatively recent World Series champions; architect Frank Lloyd Wright had a studio in Oak Park; Cook County featured the nation’s first juvenile court system; the state legislature gave women the right to vote; and the governor at the time, Edward Fitzsimmons Dunne, led a successful campaign to provide state aid for road construction.

Illinois was the place to be.

Sadly, that’s no longer the case. Thousands of people are leaving every year, and Illinois is plagued by a multitude of problems.

OPINION

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Like Frost’s narrator, we can lament the smart roads our leaders haven’t taken and consider roads they might take to make some of the difference.

But in this election, Illinois voters have a tangible opportunity to decide, literally, on one road that shouldn’t be taken.

They should vote no on the “Lockbox” or “Safe Roads” amendment to the state constitution.

The amendment would create a protected fund, called a “lockbox,” for revenue from the state’s gas tax, tolls and other vehicle and transportation-related user fees.

The money could only be spent on the operation and maintenance of public roads, bridges, intercity railways, airports and other transportation projects.

Those projects are important, but they’re not everyone’s top priority, and amending the constitution for this issue is a dubious exercise that would prioritize roads over people.

Funding for education, social services, healthcare and job creation has been erratic in recent years, and by taking one category of funds off the table, this amendment invites more instability and encourages groups to embrace “lockbox” amendments to protect their pet programs.

That would undermine a budget process that is set up to hold elected officials accountable for their decisions on how tax dollars are raised and spent.

The misguided “lockbox” amendment also invites a potentially deleterious unintended consequence: Restricting the use of excess funds that may not be needed for roads and infrastructure for years, but could be available during a crisis, disaster or catastrophe, or to strengthen other key programs that aren’t getting enough revenue.

When Gov. Dunne championed efforts to make the state pay for road construction, Illinois was a thriving manufacturing hub.

Today, we’re a state with a dysfunctional government that’s gone almost two years without a full budget, doesn’t pay its bills and can’t even begin to solve a pension crisis.

So instead of end-running the legislative process with a “lockbox” amendment that protects one category of funding, we should keep the heat on the governor and General Assembly to pass a balanced budget with a revenue stream to pay our bills, deal with our pension crisis and begin to fix our roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure.

The election is just over a week away, and Illinois voters are at a fork in the road: One side rewards a heavy lobbying campaign by building contractors and labor groups that would benefit from road and infrastructure contracts.

The other side protects the majority of Illinois residents who care about the future of the entire state. That road requires a “no” vote on the lockbox amendment, and it’s the vote that can make all the difference.

Andy Shaw is President and CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: @andyshawbga

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