Monday, November 21, 2016

Student Paper About Safe Roads Amendment

Transportation Amendment-Yes or No

I had planned a trip to Chicago with my family last month.  My son was so excited; my husband not so much.  We were going north on I-55, and my husband was already agitated with all the construction and orange barrels everywhere.  That is when we hit the mother of all pot holes.  This thing was as deep as it was round.  I could instantly see the panic in my husband's eyes, then I heard the sound of a cannon going off.  It was our tire, there was no saving it.
Anywhere you go in Illinois; this is how our roads are.  Why is that? Where is Transportation revenue going?
On November 8, voters will have the chance to add an amendment to the Illinois Constitution.  The proposed amendment is called the Safe Roads Amendment or Transportation Lockbox by supporters. This amendment prohibits the General Assembly or any local government from using, diverting, or transferring money raised from transportation revenue sources for non transportation purposes.  Transportation revenue includes gas taxes, fees, license taxes, and registration and title fees.  Over the past decade, the state of Illinois has diverted more than $6.8 billion away from transportation projects that should have been spent on them.  The result of these diversions is crumbling roads and unsafe bridges across the state.  This will affect pretty much everybody in Illinois; we all drive or use the roads one way or another.  The following is a quote from a flyer that is being distributed to homes across Illinois in support of the Safe Roads Amendment.
PRO: from a flyer being distributed by Citizens to Protect Transportation Funding: "Half of Illinois’ roads and 4,200 of our bridges are in poor condition. … Our state of disrepair isn’t because we lack money. It’s because the politicians have used the Road Fund as a slush fund. Over the last decade, $6.8 billion has been swept out of the Road Fund.  
The next quote is from House of Representative members against the Amendment, this is what they says:  CON: From a letter written by State Reps Barbara Flynn Currie, Laura Fine, Elaine Nekritz and Pamela Reaves Harris:"This amendment would severely curtail the ability of the state to react to these types of events. … Other states that have passed transportation funding lockboxes, have release valves for emergencies. …The proposed Illinois amendment is missing a safety valve."
Illinois is not the first state to put a "lockbox" on their road funds.  Wisconsin and Missouri have passed similar amendments.  The problem with Illinois compared to Wisconsin and Missouri is we do not have a balanced budget and they do.  

Polling in Illinois shows that 85% of voters support the idea of a transportation lockbox. All the amendment needs is a 60% majority vote to pass.  Most of the general assembly that was polled, was in favor of the Safe Roads Amendment; and those that were not in favor was because the amendment needed a safety net, in case of emergencies.  This new amendment will not cost the state of Illinois any more money because the money is there.  It just needs to be spent on what it is allocated for.  Some sources do say that if this amendment is passed, Illinois will have another reason to raise taxes.  
This paper does not make the case that this is relevant to social welfare policy, so I will try to make that argument.  Safe roads and infrastructure are a way to encourage economic development and increase incomes throughout the state.  If we neglect transportation infrastructure, it is possible that this will drive away businesses, or create dangerous situations for motorists such the disaster your family encountered on the 55. Neglecting transportation infrastructure can cause deaths, as for example in the I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse on August 1, 2007 or notorious Point Pleasant Silver Bridge Collapse on December 15, 1967.  Also, spending on transportation infrastructure will stimulate the economy, so it is a way for the government to provide a public good while at the same time pumping tax dollars back into local economies.

One does need to ask what the money diverted away from transportation was used to purchase.  I do not know the specifics, but I do know in general where state money goes.  The state of Illinois spends most of its money on Health & Social Services (41.8%) and Education (24.7%).  The state spends 5.5% on transportation, but I notice that only 2% of state revenue comes from motor fuel taxes. (All this information comes from the FY 2015 report from the Illinois Comptroller).   So, it is quite possible the money was taken from the transportation fund to spend on education or health and social services. Education, even more than transportation infrastructure, is a sort of investment in the public good that ought to bring economic returns to the whole state.  Spending on health and social welfare is more often pure consumption (although some of it is investment that can save money, like in prevention programs).

Here is an update on the final result of the voting for the amendment: it passed with about 80% voting in favor.  I voted against it. The amendment was supported by trade unions and large businesses that all profit from infrastructure spending.  I am not always a knee-jerk opponent to what large trade unions or large businesses desire (I am often quite sympathetic to whatever unionized labor is trying to get), but in this case, I was not convinced that this amendment would really improve the state, and I am not sure that transportation infrastructure spending is so much more important than, for example, education spending.  Should we have an amendment that forces the State of Illinois to pay a certain amount per student for every student in public K-12 education, or for each student in public Illinois universities?  Perhaps we should, but the education lobby is not as strong as the lobby that backed this particular amendment.  I doubt there will be any terrible consequences of this amendment, or at least it will cause no harm to compare with the horrifying disaster the state is experiencing because of the inability of political leadership to make a series of tax increases and spending cuts the state needs. Time will tell.    

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