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Another view: Illinois needs a state capital plan

There’s little doubt that the state of Illinois needs a major capital works plan.

Most drivers probably can think of a pothole-ridden roadway or shaky bridge that should have been replaced a few years ago. Raise your hand if you would love to see Interstate 55 expanded to three lanes as it winds through Springfield. We’d probably all be willing to put up with some construction cones and lane closures if it meant a smoother ride soon.

There are state-owned properties, whether on university campuses or in downtown Springfield or Chicago, that need updated heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems or repairs to foundations or roofs.

There’s no debate about the need for improvements, or that now is the time. The report “Capital Plan Analysis FY 2018,” released in April by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, noted that the $31 billion Illinois Jobs Now, the most recently passed major capital program, is nearing completion after selling $12.7 billion in bonds out of the $16.3 billion that was been authorized in 2009.

But start talking how to pay for the billions of dollars in potential projects, and there’s no consensus on how to proceed.

As usual, the state’s woeful financial situation is a roadblock. The April report from CGFA stressed that because of “funding deficiencies in key areas of the current program” – specifically, the Capital Projects Fund and School Infrastructure Fund – the state can’t borrow much new money without finding new revenue.

The price tag of a successful capital plan likely would be hefty. Gov. Bruce Rauner’s fiscal 2018 new capital projects proposal would use $12.83 billion in reappropriations and require $4.85 billion in new appropriations, according to the CGFA report. It would use $134 million in federal funds, $3.45 billion in state funds and about $1.26 billion in bond funds. Long term, Illinois would need to spend an estimated $43 billion over a decade to rebuild and improve the state’s transportation network, according to a report last year by the Metropolitan Planning Agency.

Those are large amounts of debt to contemplate taking on when the state still is trying to determine how to pay for an unfunded pension liability of at least $130 billion, not to mention the $15 billion stack of unpaid bills still sitting in the comptroller’s office.

A private-public partnership would be ideal, although it might be difficult to find private companies that would want to partner with a state renowned for fiscal irresponsibility.

The most likely way to fund a new capital program would be to increase the gas tax. The state gas tax is 19 cents a gallon; add in federal taxes, and the average is about 51 cents a gallon in Illinois, according to the American Petroleum Institute. Another possibility could be to increase the fee to register vehicles with the state.

But given that state lawmakers just raised income taxes, there’s going to be pushback if elected officials suggest residents should be asked to pay even more. Taxpayers are skeptical, rightfully so, about how money has been being spent. Any capital plan will have to provide hard evidence of its benefits and justifications for its funding.

The need will only become more dire – and more expensive – the longer the state waits. Lawmakers are going to have tough decisions ahead; they cannot and should not shirk the research and open dialogue that’s needed about the state’s options.

The (Springfield) State Journal-Register

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