Let’s face it, on the surface this sounds like a great thing. “Locking up” Transportation funds so they can’t be swept into whatever the pet program of the day might be.
Sportsmen and women in Illinois are all too aware of what happens when funds aren’t locked up. We’ve watched dollar after dollar swept from our DNR, in some cases illegally so. (Who can forget the sweep of Pittman - Robertson money?)
So this seems like virtually a no brainer right? Amend the constitution so those folks in Springfield cannot divert, sweep, reassign monies that should be being spent on maintaining the highways and byways of our state.
Well, like everything in Illinois politics these days, we have to look beyond the initial message and see what’s really happening.
There are two distinct reasons to consider voting no on this amendment.
The first troubling pieces of this is that it creates a constitutional amendment. Yes, an amendment to our state constitution. Are we so afraid of what our legislature will do that we have enact a constitutional amendment to keep them in line on fiduciary matters? Should we just do one giant constitutional amendment regarding finances rather than press them to develop and pass balanced budgets each year?
The Amendment is very clear about how monies can be spent - “no moneys ... derived from ... license taxes relating to registration, title, or operation or use of vehicles” can be expended other than for transportation.
Let that sink in a minute.
Thousands of Illinoisans spend extra money each year for specialty license plates to help fund causes near and dear to their hearts. These range from collegiate plates to supporting sports teams, to more importantly to support charitable organizations like breast and ovarian cancer, waterfowl habitat, environmental concerns, parks, wildlife conservation, and drug prevention. There are dozens of these plates that have been created as method of fund raising. The surcharge, usually $40, goes to the cause. These causes are not even remotely related to transportation, so where exactly will that money go should this amendment pass? Will that extra 40 dollars you spend annually for your sportsman plate ever see anything related to fish, deer, turkeys, or waterfowl should this amendment pass?
While legislators may say now that well, gee we will go ahead and let those go through…the letter of the law in the amendment says they can’t just work around the amendment. After all, this diversion of transportation funds, isn’t that the type of thing this amendment is supposed to stop?
Let’s look at how this could impact our DNR in a most negative way.
$2 of each license plate fee and $3.25 of each vehicle title fee goes to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources — almost $30 million a year, according to IDNR estimates. Is every bit of these funds spent solely on transportation related costs? Well of course not.
Remember, the amendment expressly prohibits using those fees for anything other than transportation. Getting the measure to add those fees was a difficult and arduous process. Where will that 30 million that IDNR stands to lose come from if it is lost? It would likely have to come in the form of some type of similar tax or fee hikes. Or worse yet more staff, program, and general cuts to IDNR. Yet, the monies that voters once upon a time agreed to designate for DNR, remain locked up and spent only on transportation per the amendment.
IDNR staff say the department currently plans to evaluate the amendment’s potential repercussions for its budget should it be approved, after the election. Isn’t this a little like closing the barn door after the horses have fled?
Some within IDNR and IL Secretary State offices believe that, well gee, it will all be okay because amendment sponsors said during floor debates that it really wasn’t their intention go after the DNR plate and title fees, nor the specialty plate fees.
BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT THE AMENDMENT LANGUAGE SAYS.
There we go again with those pesky legal details. Let us not forget that the IL Supreme Court has history of reading amendment text quite literally.
Is this what we want in our constitution? An amendment that in theory should force our legislators to show fiscal restraint and good stewardship but will also prevent them from making any changes without another overhaul to the constitution?
Will this create even more creative fiscal fun as legislators try to find a way around this amendment?
I say this should not be a constitutional amendment. We should not constitutionally provide funding to one area while constitutionally robbing others.
*Please note- Statements and opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and may or may not be the same as Heartland Outdoors or Lampe Publishing.