A constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot represents more than just protecting dollars for transportation funding. This vote offers citizens an opportunity to not only restore and protect the integrity of taxes, fees and licenses imposed by the State of Illinois, but more importantly undermine the Ponzi game mentality state officials have relied upon to finance government for the past 15 years.
Transportation “user fee” revenue generation had traditionally been understood to be dedicated to building, maintaining and modernizing all transportation systems to assure safe, adequate, and efficient operations. Healthy, sustainable road and construction funds assures timely repairs and expansions as commerce and demographics might require.
People have been willing to pay for good roads and better public transportation. However, when government officials willingly and consistently divert user fee revenue for other purposes the public should object and seek accountability.
The implied compact between taxpayers and Illinois government broke down when Gov. Rod Blagojevich submitted his first budget. His unbalanced budget raised and imposed new fees, stole from the road fund, instituted systematic inter-fund transfers and issued more debt. Budgetary dishonesty has been in vogue in Springfield ever since.
Sadly, the budget-makers penchant for robbing Peter to pay Paul in order to obfuscate the real issue of adequate revenue in the General Fund is likely to continue without bold action such as voter approval of the Lockbox Amendment.
Opponents argue that if the amendment is adopted budgeting will be harder. The legislature will have less flexibility and ability to allocate additional funds to worthy, underfunded priorities like education and social services. Indeed, state funding for education and social services has been aided by claiming dollars from dozens of special funds that accumulate “user fee” income.
But that is exactly the point. If the amendment fails the public will have essentially blessed the continuation of unbalanced and dishonest budgets.
Perpetual draws on special funds can not be excused as “inter-fund borrowing” when there is never a restoration of the funds. It is the theft of dedicated funds.
The Road Fund is the poster child for hundreds of special funds only because it is the largest pocket to pick. Special funds have dedicated revenue streams and exist with the expectation that certain designated governmental functions will be sustained without having to compete with education or social service agencies for General Fund financing. Ironically, the opposite has transpired.
Contemporary Illinois politicians have consistently abused fee-payers who are required by law to finance agencies and services upon which they rely. When they pay the fees they deserve timely, efficient and high quality government services in return for their payments. That is not what citizens and businesses are receiving when budget makers choose to re-direct special funds to other purposes.
Hundreds of special funds exist to finance government operations. The reliability and integrity of banking institutions is dependent upon bank examiners and bank fees that pay for them. The Environmental Protection Agency is predominantly fee reliant. The Workers’ Compensation Commission is fee reliant. Dozens of professions are tested, licensed and disciplined on a fee for service model. Stealing from these dedicated funds is dishonest, a threat to the delivery of quality service and is disrespectful of the citizens and businesses who sustain them.
The vote at hand is not about choosing between road construction and education funding or human services. It should be recognized as a referendum on whether or not Illinois voters are willing to demand fiscal integrity on the part of state government.
If the integrity of the Road Fund is defended by voter approval, the Governor and General Assembly should understand “the game is up”. It would mean the Illinois voters have had enough of the fiscal shenanigans and budgetary shell games.
The “lock box” amendment assures the budgeteers’ biggest piggy bank would finally be off-limits after being abused for years. As a consequence state budgeting will have to change. And, that would be an excellent outcome.
The Illinois Chamber sued the state following the first Blagojevich budget in an effort to establish the constitutional principle that there is a distinction between fees and taxes. The General Assembly and Governors simply ignored the point and continued to demonstrate in every subsequent budget that they have no principles when it comes to state finances.
Unabated raids upon funds financed by user fees has been precipitated by elected officials unwillingness to assume responsibility for raising taxes to assure the General Fund is capable of meeting the state’s fundamental obligations to education, health care, human services, public safety and pension payments. Shutting off the fund raids will help force the issue.
If the amendment is approved it should be interpreted as a clear message to elected officials that voters think it is time to straighten out the state finances, restore honesty in budgeting, demonstrate fiscal integrity, meet obligations in a timely manner and once again produce balanced budgets.
Douglas Whitley is a former CEO of the Illinois Chamber, Director of the Illinois Department of Revenue, President of the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois, Executive Director of Supply Chain Innovation Network of Chicago, Founder & Co-Chairman of the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, and columnist for Crain’s Chicago Business.
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