Needed repairs and upgrades would put thousands to work
BY CARL GREEN
Springfield, IL – Support is building in Springfield and throughout Illinois for a wide-ranging capital-spending bill that would designate billions of dollars to rebuilding and repairing roads but could also fund construction and repairs to public buildings.
The Illinois AFL-CIO is one of the leading voices speaking up for “Build Up Illinois,” a coalition seeking to make sure public buildings are included in whatever legislation emerges from the Legislature in this last month before the spring session ends.
“It’s been almost 10 years since we’ve had a capital bill, and it’s time for another one,” sad Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan, a leader in the coalition along with two Metro-East legislators, Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) and Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill).
“Capital projects put thousands of people to work in every corner of our state while making much-needed investments to our aging infrastructure,” Carrigan said at a May 1 press conference introducing the coalition.
“The 900,000 union members across the state are willing partners in support of a capital plan that addresses needed repairs and upgrades as well as new construction.
“This coalition is ready to support both lawmakers and the administration in moving a comprehensive plan forward.”
Failing to fund capital improvements on the state level also costs the state even greater funds from the biggest pot of infrastructure funding – federal budget matching money.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS
Manar is part of a Senate delegation that has been traveling the state to hold public hearings for a capital bill, documenting the requests and suggestions of educators, medical professionals, universities and more.
“Illinois needs cranes on campuses and bulldozers at building sites,” Manar said at the press conference. “Construction projects signal that Illinois is open for business. Highway and bridge repairs are vitally important, but any statewide infrastructure plan has to balance those priorities with our need for new schools, modern hospitals and 21st-century cottage facilities. There has to be a healthy mix.”
State buildings alone are estimated to include more than 8,700 structures and 101 million square feet of floor space, including prisons, universities, mental hospitals and state parks.
The American Society of Civil Engineers last year graded the state at “C-“ because its 20 million miles of roads and bridges show deterioration and vulnerability.
PAY AT THE PUMP
Manar expects a bipartisan capital bill to emerge yet this month before the session ends but as ever, the problem lies with funding.
The state operating budget does not exactly have room for big infrastructure projects. But the Illinois Capital Development Board estimates state government facilities need repairs totaling $7.8 billion, state universities need $6.7 billion and elementary schools need $9.4 billion, not to mention road, bridge, sewer, parks and water projects.
Manar acknowledged they can’t do it all at once. “In the next few weeks, I expect we would see the beginning phases of a bill that would represent some bipartisan agreement, both on the spending side and the revenue side,” he said.
The most likely source of funds seems to be an increase in gasoline taxes. The official motor fuel tax, now 19 cents a gallon, is reserved for roads and bridges. Under one bill now in the Senate, that would increase to 38 cents a gallon while adding a separate three-cent sales tax. State sales taxes and some local sales taxes are also collected on gasoline.
While nobody opposes fixing the roads, increasing gasoline taxes is another matter. They are already the 11th highest in the nation.
Conservative state Sen. Jason Plummer (R-Edwardsville) is one of many legislators opposed to raising gasoline taxes.
“You might as well just change the name of it from a gas tax to a downstate tax,” he said at one point, noting that support for raising the tax was coming from the Chicago area. “A lot of folks in Chicago are taking public transportation – the Metra, trains, all these things that folks in southern Illinois don’t have. A gas tax is a tax on southern Illinois because we are more rural, more spread out. We travel further for school, we travel further for work, we travel further to visit family.”
One supporter of increasing the gasoline tax is Ray LaHood, the longtime Republican congressman from Peoria who served as U.S. Secretary of Transportation under President Barack Obama.
At one of the hearings, he said an infrastructure bill would be a “jobs and economic development bill.” “My focus is on the fact that Illinois is one big pothole right now,” he said. “We’ve had these brutal winters and people are complaining about potholes. If the General Assembly raised the gas tax and fixed up the roads, people would be very happy.”
A.J. Wilhemi, president of the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, is determined to secure capital funding to help struggling hospitals meet people’s needs. ”The right care, provided at the right time and the right setting – this would create good-paying construction jobs in the short term and health-care jobs in the long term,” he said at the press conference.
In this era of bitter feuding between the political parties, capital spending is one area in which Democrats and Republicans have been known to agree. Southern Illinois Sen. Dale Fowler (R-Harrisburg) said in a recent interview that he, too, is hopeful a capital bill will come together.
“We live in a depressed, impoverished area here in southern Illinois, we have a lot of needs, and when you start increasing taxes, it takes more money out of the pockets of those who are trying to feed their families,” he said. “But by the same token, we have to continue to operate southern Illinois.
“Our state parks, which are a huge economic engine in southern Illinois, have been neglected, and I want to make sure they receive funding and deferred maintenance,” he added.