The money behind the ‘Safe Roads Amendment’
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Road builders and construction trade unions joined forces to raise about $4 million to sell a constitutional amendment on the Illinois ballot Tuesday that would ensure billions of state dollars are set aside for transportation projects over the next decade and beyond.
The campaign to pass the so-called “Safe Roads Amendment” is grounded in a rare, tacit truce between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, — a stark contrast to the battles the two are waging on other political fronts.
Madigan’s support was key in getting the amendment question on the November ballot. Rauner is staying out of the public push to get it passed but, significantly, is raising no objections to the measure.
The Chicago Sun-Times analyzed the political campaign to pass the amendment and the special interest money fueling the drive.
The “Safe Roads” amendment was the brainchild, sources told the Sun-Times, of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association, who then brought in the trade unions to create a powerful alliance.
This alliance needed to win the approval of the General Assembly in order to get their amendment on the November ballot.
State Sen. William Haine, D-Alton, the chief Senate sponsor of the amendment legislation, told the Sun-Times it came to him on behalf of that alliance through Illinois Chamber President Todd Maisch.
Rebranding and Messaging
The “Citizens to Protect Transportation Funding” political committee was created with money from that construction industry and trade union alliance to drum up votes to pass the amendment.
However, the “citizens” committee name is misleading – every contribution is from a union or a business-related group.
The chairman and treasurer of “Citizens to Protect” are Springfield lobbyists Jennifer Morrison and Andrew Raucci. Maisch is the chair of an allied political committee, “Businesses to Protect Transportation Funding.” That group raised $44,500 to pass the amendment; $40,000 from the Chamber.
Key to the marketing campaign bankrolled by “Citizens to Protect” was getting rid of the mind-numbing official language to describe the amendment voters will see at the top of their Illinois ballots: a yes or no “for the proposed addition of Section 11 to Article IX of the Illinois Constitution.”
The snappy “Safe Roads Amendment” language emerged as the best brand name. “Put Illinois Transportation Money in a Lock Box and Keep Illinois Safe” is among its slogans.
How does this translate into a political messaging?
In one “Citizens to Protect” television ad a narrator says, “Republicans and Democrats actually agree on it. So on Nov. 8th, they’re voting for the Safe Roads Amendment.”
Similar branding is used on Facebook and Google political digital advertising to promote passage of the amendment.
The digital and television ads for “Citizens to Protect” are produced by the Chicago-based Adelstein & Associates. Eric Adelstein, the founder of the firm, is a Democratic political consultant who also is doing the anti-Rauner/anti-Donald Trump ads for the Democratic-funded political action committee created in September called LIFT — Leading Illinois for Tomorrow.
“Dark Money” Contributors
The political spending of “Citizens to Protect” is bankrolled in part by jumbo donations from “dark money” groups who do not have to identify the sources of their funds.
The biggest union contribution to “Citizens to Protect” is $1 million from the “Fight Back Fund,” identified in Illinois State Board of Elections disclosure records only as an entity with a La Grange post office box.
In fact, the Fight Back Fund is connected to the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 based in Countryside. The union members operate heavy construction equipment.
Marc Poulos, the executive director of the Local 150-related Indiana, Illinois and Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting, told the Sun-Times the Fight Back Fund contribution was made to “at the very least, protect what we have.”
Poulos said the Fight Back Fund is a tax-exempt organization with an IRS 501(c) 4 designation, something the IRS defines as an entity “operated exclusively to promote social welfare.”
The biggest business donation to “Citizens to Protect” is $300,001 from a group listed in state disclosure reports as Excavators Inc. in McHenry.
Michael Sturino, president and CEO of the Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association as well as the spokesman for “Citizens to Protect,” told the Sun-Times that Excavators Inc. is a business organization with an IRS 501(c) 6 designation.
The IRS defines a 501 (c) 6 group as a trade association “directed to promoting the common economic interests of all commercial enterprises in a given trade community.”
The political giving to “Citizens to Protect” is roughly split between business interests and unions and joint labor/management political action committees.
The Midwest Region Laborers-Employers Cooperation & Education Trust kicked in $150,000; the Ironworker Management Progressive Action Cooperative Trust gave $75,000; the Downstate Infrastructure Awareness and Advancement Fund gave $150,000.
Some of the larger union donations include a fund associated with the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters, $250,000; the Laborers’ Great Lake Region Organizing Committee, $200,000; the Washington D.C. office of the International Union of Operating Engineers, $160,000; and the Operating Engineers Local 965 based in Springfield, in for $65,000.
Major business money came from the Illinois Road & Transportation Builders Association, $200,000; the Underground Contractors Association, $100,000; the Illinois Road Builders Political Action Committee, $100,000; the Asphalt Pavement Association, $70,000; the Contractors Association of Will & Grundy Counties, $25,000; the Associated General Contractor of Illinois PAC, $25,000; and the Lake County Contractors Association, $10,000
Changing the Illinois Constitution
The amendment would change the Illinois Constitution to require that transportation-related fees and taxes such as license plate registration fees and motor fuel taxes be used only for transportation-related purposes by state and local governments and not be diverted to other programs.
Illinois has long dipped into the state road fund and other transportation revenue to plug other budget gaps. That practice has only deepened the state’s transportation infrastructure needs, amendment proponents say.
The Transportation for Illinois Coalition, which backs the amendment, is a nonprofit whose members are construction-related companies, organized labor and local public transit and planning agencies. The group estimates that in the 2015 fiscal year alone, $520 million in state transportation revenue was diverted to cover non-transportation needs.
Over the past decade, more than $6 billion has been “swept” away to other purposes, it estimated, although others have disputed those figures as overblown.
Illinois gasoline tax and license plate fees have been used by state lawmakers “for everything from soup to nuts” as the tab to maintain and repair the state’s aging roads, bridges and rail lines over the next 10 years has swelled to $43 billion, Haine said.
The underlying public policy premise is that transportation-related fees and taxes should only be used for transportation purposes, Haine said.
Impact If Amendment Passes
For the measure to become part of the Illinois Constitution, it must be approved by 60 percent of the voters or by more than 50 percent of all ballots cast in the Nov. 8 election. Polls suggest the amendment is likely to pass.
Haine said “absolutely” the trade unions and builders who are financially supporting the amendment’s passage will get more work from it. But, he emphasized, “So what? It doesn’t detract from the merit of the proposal.”
Sturino said the main benefit of the amendment, if it passes, is to “afford certainty which gives the companies more efficiency when they have to decide which equipment to purchase” and “how many people to keep, how many people to lay off.”
Exactly how much more money will be spent on transportation under the amendment is “one of those million-dollar questions” due to its “vague” wording, said Amanda Kass, assistant director of the Center for Municipal Finance at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.
“What’s the net impact? Nobody knows,” Kass said.
Kass authored a recently released white paper on the amendment that contended the measure “likely creates more problems than it actually solves.”
Critics say the amendment will hamstring Illinois by putting transportation funds into a so-called “lockbox” during the state’s current, and any future, financial bind. Other areas, such as education or social services, could get a smaller “piece of the pie” as a result, Kass said. Local governments, including Chicago, also could be lose flexibility, she warned.
If the amendment passes, even some proponents favor passing further legislation to clarify what state and local transportation funds would be “lockboxed.”
“The irony of the whole thing is this is needed because lawmakers have misspent the money,” Kass said. “But if passed, lawmakers will have to pass another law on how to spend the money.”
Haine believes Senate debate on the measure made clear its legislative intent. The state needs a “fair tax system” to address other fiscal problems, Haine said, but devoting transportation funds to transportation needs is “the right thing to do.”