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A Transportation 'Lock Box Amendment' Is On The Ballot: What Does It Mean?

By Alex Nitkin | November 2, 2016 8:29am
 The amendment would create an untouchable
The amendment would create an untouchable "lock box" of transportation funding for the state.
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DNAinfo/Quinn Ford

CHICAGO — This year's frenzied political season makes it easy to forget that Illinois voters won't only be casting ballots for candidates on Election Day.

They'll also be asked to approve four ballot referenda, including a wordy but hotly-contested state funding provision known as the "transportation lock box amendment."

Having overwhelmingly passed the state General Assembly earlier this year, the amendment needs final approval from voters before it's written into the Illinois Constitution.

Here's a quick explanation of what the amendment means, and why it's caused such a fierce argument among policy observers:

What does the ballot referendum say?

In essence, the amendment declares that all revenue raised for the stated purpose of funding transportation projects must end up directly funding transportation projects.

Here's the full text of what will appear on the ballot:

"The proposed amendment provides that no moneys derived from taxes, fees, excises, or license taxes, relating to registration, titles, operation, or use of vehicles or public highways, roads, streets, bridges, mass transit, intercity passenger rail, ports, or airports, or motor fuels, including bond proceeds, shall be expended for other than costs of administering laws related to vehicles and transportation, costs for construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, and betterment of public highways, roads, streets, bridges, mass transit, intercity passenger rail, ports, airports, or other forms of transportation, and other statutory highway purposes, including the State or local share to match federal aid highway funds."

What would the "lock box" amendment do?

As it stands now, some revenue raised through methods like vehicle registration fees and excise taxes on gasoline can be diverted to fund health care, education programs or social services.

This amendment wouldn't just ban those kinds of diversions — it would make them unconstitutional, along with any new laws or provisions that might allow for them.

In other words, it would create an untouchable "lock box" of funding to be used solely for transportation projects, hence the amendment's nickname. 

Why is the amendment being proposed?

Advocates from groups like the Metropolitan Planning Council point to a sharp drop-off in funding for public infrastructure projects all over Illinois. The state's cratering transportation deficit will only get deeper if special measures aren't taken, they argue.

"There's already inadequate money for what we need for transportation and road funding, so we shouldn't be taking more money out of it," said Jim Reilly, a senior fellow at the council.

Laying down ground rules for funding would also make it easier for legislators to pass new revenue, Reilly added.

"We know from polls that a big reason people are opposed to raising gas taxes is that they don't have confidence the money would actually used for transportation," he said. "A gas tax is a user fee, so we shouldn't be spending it elsewhere."

Also putting its weight behind the amendment is a broad coalition of business and transportation advocates around the state, including the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Construction Industry Council and the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The Chicago-based Active Transportation Alliance has also expressed cautious support for the measure, trusting that it would "significantly [increase] state funding available for walking, biking and transit" and not just roadways, according to a statement.

Why have some people come out against it?

Few are opposed to funneling more money into state infrastructure projects, but plenty of policy experts have sounded alarm bells over embedding such a restrictive provision into the bedrock of state law.

Those experts include Amanda Kass, the assistant director of the University of Chicago's Center for Municipal Finance, who published a six-page paper cautioning voters against approving what she called a "highly problematic" amendment.

For one thing, she said, lawmakers trying wade their way out of a severe budget crisis would be tying their own hands by restricting how they can use revenue.

"If you think of the entire revenue pie, all this would do is limit the ways that it can be sliced up," Kass said. "But it wouldn't add to the pie. The pie is already too small to begin with, so this would just deepen the hole."

Plus, she said, the vague wording around which "forms of transportation" can get direct funding could reap unintended consequences.

Proponents like Reilly say legislators can later iron out those kinds of specifics later, but once an amendment is written into the state constitution, any new laws would have to pass muster with the Illinois Supreme Court.

"It's not like a state statute that lawmakers would have the power to change on their own," Kass said. "A court would have to weigh in on everything, using the actual language of the amendment, and that alone should make voters cautious."

What happens if voters approve the referendum?

The referendum is binding, meaning that its result will whether the provision is implemented. Since the amendment has already cleared the General Assembly, Illinois voters are its only remaining hurdle.

If 60 percent of ballots say "yes" by the time polls close next Tuesday, the amendment will be written into the constitution.

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