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Di Leo: The Potholes of Spring


By John Di Leo - 

Reflections on Illinois roadways and the speed bumps of the General Assembly…

When you or I walk outside in the spring, and see that the winter has left behind a few reminders on our driveways – a pothole, a chip, a crack – we check the finances, and perhaps we have the driveway completely repaved…

…But much more likely, we head to the local hardware store, pick up a bag of concrete mix or blacktop patch, and get to work on our hands and knees with our trusty trowels.

While fully repaving the driveway is certainly a “nice-to-have,” it’s hardly a necessity, compared to all the other demands on our overstretched personal finances. We prioritize. The mortgage comes first; the kids’ tuition, the spouse’s surgery, the car repairs, the property tax bill … all these rank higher in their demands on our checkbooks. 

So we just fix the driveway to make it passable, rather than spending money we don’t have to make it perfect. We just make it last another year.

Oh, if only our government felt that way.

The Bottomless Checkbook of Springfield, Illinois

Illinois has a lot of roads.

And when we say that, we mean a LOT of roads.   Despite the fact that most Chicagoans spend all their time in the urban northeast corner known as Chicagoland, Illinois is primarily a large agricultural state, 215 miles wide and a whopping 400 miles long.  With hot, humid summers and often brutal winters, these temperature fluctuations and moisture can really do a number on Illinois pavement.

With the Illinois state capital located in the dead center of the state, our state reps and state senators get plenty of opportunities to experience these many roads, and sometimes they arrive at the capital a bit rattled from the potholes, cracks and pits of our highways. 

Being legislators, they start talking with each other about the need for repaving their respective commutes… and, rather than proposing the old-fashioned idea of taking turns, being Illinois legislators, they generally propose drawing up a list, and simply agree to repave them all.

Unfortunately, Illinois simply cannot afford it.  Repaving all the battered roads of a 58,000 square mile state costs money, and Illinois has been bleeding money for as long as it’s been bleeding employers, residents, and common sense, which is to say, for a very long time indeed.

Illinois’ ongoing annual deficits therefore stand in the way of the comprehensive repair project upon which the state fathers would really like to embark.  Faced with the unfulfilling choice between drawing down their repaving plans and cutting other spending to make room for it, the Illinois state legislature considers turning to a tried-and-true third option:  Raising taxes.

Here Comes the Cavalry!

Just in time, an Illinois think tank rushes to the rescue.  The Illinois Economic Policy Institute crunched a few numbers this spring, and let loose with a few options for our legislators to consider.

Speaking for the Illinois EPI, Mary Craighead proposed that the state more than double its gas tax, currently at 34 cents per gallon, to 85 cents per gallon for automotive fuel, and about a dollar per gallon for the diesel fuel used by trucks.  (considering the fact that almost everything we buy is delivered by truck, mightn’t this be a wee bit inflationary?)

Pennsylvania’s gas tax, at 58 cents/gallon, is currently the highest in the USA; if Chicago and the state of Illinois keep sinking in other economic rankings, perhaps they’re just determined to somehow be first in something

Another alternative proposed by the Illinois EPI this spring is to raise the state’s vehicle registration fees.  Instead of the paltry $101/year currently charged on each car (already among the nation’s highest), we could just jack that number up to $578/year.  Why, with that kind of money, the state would be flush with cash, and would have no problem pouring fresh concrete or laying fresh asphalt from the Wisconsin line all the way to sunny Cairo at our southern tip. 

Granted, $578 per car is a bit steep for most of us.  This state still requires regular emissions testing of every personal car, because so many people can’t afford nice new cars and must continue to drive old polluters.  The state watches residents flee at a rate of nearly 100,000 per year, because of our outrageous tax burden.  Raising the car registration cost for a three-car family from $303/year to $1734/year would hardly help reduce that exodus.  We may as well put reversible lanes on the bridges over the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to accommodate all the families who flee the state to avoid a per-car registration fee like that.

What kind of a think tank would propose such utterly unsustainable tax rates?  

Well, in case you haven’t yet guessed it, the Illinois Economic Policy Institute isn’t exactly capitalist.  It’s a liberal group founded primarily to put a respectable gloss on the Democratic Party’s tax-and-spend agenda in Illinois.  Whether its name was chosen to intentionally confuse the audience is unproven, but to the casual observer, the liberal Illinois Economic Policy Institute sure sounds an awful lot like the much more respectable, free-market Illinois Policy Institute, doesn’t it?  Perhaps there might have been some hope that their pronouncements would sound like they came from someone with more cachet?

The Tone-Deaf Modern Left

There are certain things that any reasonable observer can process easily:

  • A bankrupt state, unable to pay its existing bills, can’t even afford to think about big new projects.
  • A bankrupt state that’s losing a hundred thousand residents per year should concentrate first on finding a way to stop that bleeding, and start attracting taxpayers again instead of repelling them.
  • A state that continues to increase its revenues every year – yes, it’s true, Illinois does – while remaining functionally bankrupt, doesn’t have a revenue problem at all; it has a spending

Illinois spends money it doesn’t have on inflating the cost of construction projects, with costly and archaic tools like prevailing wage requirements.

Illinois wastes money it doesn’t have on fighting crime committed by people who have already been caught and prosecuted, and released back into the community too soon.  It’s not just the cost of crime, it’s the cost of avoidable crime – crime that rational sentencing would have prevented from occurring.

Illinois wastes money it doesn’t have on providing services to illegal aliens – services like schools and welfare and healthcare – because the Democratic Party benefits from sanctuary city, sanctuary county, and sanctuary state statuses. Tax dollars flow into the schools, the social work agencies, the indigent healthcare arena.   Illegals vote – illegally, of course, but the Chicago machine never blanched at the thought of vote fraud before; the votes of illegal aliens are just as welcome in their diverse ballot boxes as the votes of the dead, the moved-away, the multiply-registered and the fictional.  There were somewhere between half a million and a million illegal aliens in Illinois… that we know of… before the state went all-in on the sanctuary bandwagon in recent years.  The illegal population can only be growing today.

Illinois could afford better roads.  Illinois could afford great roads.

But that would take a willingness to concentrate on the avoidable costs that Illinois currently chooses to waste money on.  Open bidding (free of set-asides and prevailing wage requirements) makes taxpayer-funded projects more affordable.  Stiff sentencing for known criminals is infinitely cheaper than re-arresting, re-prosecuting and re-trying the same serial offenders all the time.  Restricting state safety net programs to American citizens, rather than writing checks to all the people of the world, is the only way to bring our state budget under control.  And of course, the dinosaur in the room – Illinois’ unfunded and unfundable public pension system – must be reformed before it has to be repudiated.  It may already be too late.

But what are the odds?  For Illinois to correct its errors in these regards would not be hard at all… but it would require our legislators to stand up to their leadership and insist on fiscal prudence.  It would require a rebuff of Speaker Madigan’s iron-fisted rule such as he’s never seen in his almost fifty years in Springfield.

If things continue as they have been, Illinois soon won’t even be able to afford those cheap 50-pound bags of blacktop patch to fill our potholes with.   One day soon, we may find that the only material available that’s cheap enough to stuff into those potholes will be Illinois state government bonds.

Copyright 2018 John F. Di Leo

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based trade compliance professional, actor, writer, and recovering politician (it’ll be 21 years next month, but, like any addiction, you’re never fully cured).  His columns appear regularly in Illinois Review.

Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included.


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