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Ill. Senate Panel OKs Taxes, Fees for Construction

Fri June 12, 2009 - Midwest Edition
Christopher Wills - ASSOCIATED PRESS

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) The Illinois Senate voted May 20 to raise liquor taxes, expand gambling and increase driver fees to help pay for a $26 billion public works program meant to create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

“This bill is long overdue. It has been a decade of decay for our roads and our schools and our bridges and our trains,” said Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale.

Dillard admitted some concern about how lawmakers chose to pay for the construction, but he and most other Republicans agreed to go along with the Democratic majority. The measure passed 49-12 and now goes to the House.

Two other pieces of the construction plan — a bill spelling out how to spend the money and one authorizing billions in debt — passed unanimously.

Illinois has not seen a major construction initiative since Illinois FIRST was approved under former Gov. George Ryan. In the decade since, the state has not been able to keep up with the need for new or rebuilt highways, bridges, schools and public transportation systems.

At the same time, the nation’s economic crisis has pushed Illinois unemployment to the highest level in years.

So officials made it a top priority to pass a construction program that would put people to work.

“This bill will create tens of thousands of jobs, which is what we need right now,” said Senate President John Cullerton “It’s going to actually bring jobs to all parts of the state, every township, every city.”

Gov. Pat Quinn estimated earlier this year that the program would support about 360,000 jobs.

He doesn’t support this version, however. The Chicago Democrat questions the idea of legalizing video poker and raising liquor taxes.

“We are making strides, but there is still a long way to go,” said Quinn spokeswoman Katie Ridgway.

The $26 billion program is a combination of federal and state money. To come up with its share, about $12 billion, Illinois would borrow money by selling bonds. To repay that debt, it has to come up with new sources of money — the gambling, taxes and fees.

Senators approved the whole package at lightning speed.

It surfaced in a committee about 1:30 and was approved there after less than 45 minutes of discussion. The Senate met later in the day and approved all three pieces in less than 40 minutes.

The plan calls for legalizing gambling on video poker machines, something often labeled the “crack cocaine of gambling.” People already gamble on them under the table in many Illinois bars, but the state doesn’t get a share of the money. Cullerton said the state should get $375 million a year from legalizing the machines.

The legislation allows up to five video gambling machines in any truck stop or business that serves alcohol, said Anita Bedell, executive director of the antigambling group Illinois Church Action on Alcohol & Addiction Problems.

Putting such a fast, easy-to-use form of gambling at the fingertips of so many people will encourage addiction, Bedell said.

“It’s a very big concern. Very big,” she said.

The plan also would increase taxes on hard liquor, beer and wine. The increase would generate about $113 million, Cullerton estimated.

He didn’t describe the impact on consumers, but an earlier version would have increased prices by 2.6 cents for a six-pack of beer, 13 cents for a bottle of wine and roughly 80 cents for a bottle of liquor.

Drivers and car owners would be hit with fees producing about $330 million a year for the state. The cost of license plates would climb by $20, for instance, to $99 a year.

Those and other changes would yield nearly $1.1 billion a year in new revenue to pay off the debt of a public works program, Cullerton said.

That program would include $2.8 billion for road projects, $1.5 billion for new schools, $2 billion for public transportation, $718 million for universities and more.

None of the money would be set aside in lump sums for lawmakers to spend as they wish without oversight, Cullerton said. The money would either go into existing formulas that determine spending or would be listed project by project so everyone can see where the money goes.

Without passage of a capital program, Illinois’ regular road-improvement plan becomes just a maintenance program.

Transportation Secretary Gary Hannig released an $11.25 billion five-year road plan May 20. But he cautioned there’s very little money for any new roads or bridges.

“This is a program that would try to improve the highway footprint that exists today,” Hannig told reporters on a conference call. “Very little is committed to new lanes. That’s where we would look for help from the capital bill. That would be almost exclusively new lanes and new construction and major projects like that.”

An infusion of money into the transit system would mean not only new highway lanes to relieve congestion, but efficiency in dovetailing spending on existing projects with new ones, Hannig said.

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