We have celebrated the 4th of July as our Independence Day since 1776. Growing up, many of us remember some simple phrases about our country’s fight for freedom. “The British are coming!” “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!” And my favorite, “No taxation without representation!”
It took five more years for the British to stop coming and finally surrender in 1781. It took two more years for the British Empire to officially recognize the new United States of America with the Treaty of Paris. Our new nation discovered two important challenges. First, it needed better roads. Second, it needed taxes to build them. Our first system of government, the Articles of Confederation, was unable to get the job done.
Our Founding Fathers got to work and framed a new system by writing our Constitution. George Washington was a champion of the new system; and after becoming our first President, made infrastructure improvements central to our country’s development. Historian Paul Johnson wrote about President Washington’s philosophy, saying, “His diaries show what chiefly interested him: the impact of distance on the economy, social life, and opportunity. Any steps to speed up travel were central to the country’s future.”
Infrastructure improvements remained central to our country’s development through the next century. As more and more farmers moved west, we needed more roads, canals, and trains to take food from the fields to markets. Founder of the Whig Party, House Speaker Henry Clay, argued that infrastructure investment made perfect sense because it led to economic growth and fostered national unity by connecting us geographically.
President Abraham Lincoln was a staunch supporter of infrastructure improvements as an Illinois State Representative and US Congressman. While in Congress, he understood how important it was to make sure tax dollars were being spent properly, saying, “All agree that something in the way of internal improvement must be done. The difficulty is to discriminate, when to begin and where to stop. There is great danger in going too far.”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower championed an interstate highway system and appointed General Lucius D. Clay to study it. General Clay said, “It was evident we needed better highways. We needed them for safety, to accommodate more automobiles. We needed them for defense purposes, if that should ever be necessary. And we needed them for the economy. Not just as a public works measure but for future growth.”
I agree with Presidents Washington and Lincoln, Speaker Clay and General Clay. Infrastructure is essential. We need good roads, bridges, railways, and in the modern age, airports. We need them because they connect us to each other and because they are essential to grow our economy. We can’t create good jobs with better wages and affordable benefits without maintaining and improving our infrastructure when necessary.
I’d like to clear something up before I begin. To my surprise, I have received a few emails asking why I voted to raise taxes by voting for the capital bill. Senate Bill 1939 (SB1939) was filed with the Secretary of the Senate on February 19, as an amendment to the State Finance Act. It required – within 150 days after the conclusion of each fiscal year – all state-funded colleges and universities be held accountable for how they use tax payer dollars by providing documentation of their revenue and expenditures to the Governor and the General Assembly. It came up for a vote on April 10 and passed unanimously before going to the House of Representatives.
SB1939 was amended by the House on June 1 and became the “Transportation Funding Protection Act,” and passed same day. It passed the Senate the next day. I voted no.
I didn’t vote against the capital bill because I don’t think infrastructure is important. As I hope you can see, I believe infrastructure is essential. Still, I had two very good reasons to vote against this capital bill.
First, I think President Eisenhower was right when he said that, “planning is everything.” The state of Illinois is responsible for 15,911 miles of road, 7,856 bridges, 30 rest areas, 107 aviation landing facilities, 10,262 railroad grade crossings, 58 transit systems, 1,118 miles of navigable waterways, 28 river locks, and approximately 350 marine terminals. These numbers do not include any of the infrastructure needs of our cities, counties or townships.
Is it reasonable to believe that a 177 page bill filed as an amendment in one day is enough time to know how the capital bill prioritizes the reconstruction or repair of the 2,300 structurally deficient Illinois bridges, much less the rest of our infrastructure needs? Do we know how much money will be available for local infrastructure projects? Do we know when the money will be available?
The answer to these questions is, NO! Illinois government has perfected the process of passing the bill before knowing what’s in it and I think that should change. In many cases we’re passing Mad-Libs masquerading as masterpieces.
This leads to my second reason for voting no. The bill increases numerous taxes and fees, including doubling the Illinois gas tax. The $.19 increase starts July 1. That means Illinois drivers like you and me will be paying the second highest total gas taxes in the country. It will be especially crushing in rural communities because we drive more miles than people in Chicago. For all of the taxes, I have yet to find a single spending reform in SB1939.
I’m happy to pay taxes when I know the money will be well spent. For example, I believe we should support our men and women in uniform who protect us in our police and fire departments. I also believe we need better planning before we pass legislation, especially legislation that raises taxes on working families. We cannot expect government to live up to a higher standard if we never set one for it to meet.
If you have any additional thoughts or ideas, please visit my website at www.senatorstewart.com and use the form to send me an e-mail.