Ill. Democrats Mulling Gas Tax Increase

Top leaders "keeping all options open"
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- The top two leaders of the Illinois House and Senate began paving the way Tuesday for increasing the state's gasoline tax to fund billions of dollars in highway and mass-transit projects, reported The Chicago Tribune. House Speaker Michael Madigan (D) will support a proposal to raise the existing 19-cent-per-gallon motor fuel tax to 27 cents, a boost that could raise $500 million a year to fund bond payments on a $5.9 billion transportation repair plan, a Madigan spokesperson told the newspaper.

Senate President John Cullerton (D) also told [image-nocss] the Tribune's editorial board that increased motor fuel taxes and higher vehicle fees should be considered "on the table" for what he called an Illinois "stimulus" package that would fund school construction as well as road and transit projects.

A spokesperson for Governor Pat Quinn (D) said the governor is "keeping all options open as he works to get a clear idea of the state's finances." In one of his first appearances since replacing Rod Blagojevich as governor last week, Quinn called a statewide public works program a top priority, said the report.

Madigan is backing a gasoline-tax increase proposal sponsored by State Representative John Bradley (D), which initially drew derision from some lawmakers because of sensitivity to the likelihood of spiking gasoline prices, the report said. But Madigan spokesperson Steve Brown said the House speaker believes that Bradley's proposal "looks like a very-well-thought-out way" to fund a rehabilitation program for neglected roads and bridges around the state, along with ailing mass-transit systems in urban areas.

Illinois' current gasoline-tax rate of 19 cents per gallon is slightly above the national average of 18.4 cents, the Tribune said. But the state also charges sales tax on gasoline, and many municipalities also tax motor fuel, such as the 6 cents a gallon charged by Cook County and 5 cents a gallon charged by Chicago.

By adding the cost of state and local levies to the federal tax rate of 18.4 cents per gallon, the taxes Illinois motorists now pay on average on a gallon of gasoline total 50.8 cents, the ninth-highest in the country, according to the report, citing the American Petroleum Institute (API). An 8-cent boost would make Illinois' tax rate an average of 58.8 cents, second only to New York's 59.7 cents.

Illinois' current motor fuel tax rate has been unchanged since 1990, said the report.

Cullerton maintained that motor fuel tax revenues, which go into the state's road construction fund, have been "flat or declining" because of better fuel efficiency in newer vehicles. "One of the things on the table should be raising that 19 cents, and it also has a second benefit [for] folks who believe that, as a form of tax policy, we ought to raise the gas tax because we discourage SUV use and encourage people to take mass transit," he told the paper.

Republican leaders in the General Assembly are supportive of a state public works proposal, said the report, although they have not backed a funding source. But GOP leaders are opposed to increasing taxesparticularly during a recession. "Raising taxes in this environment is probably the worst thing you can do to the public," said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont.

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