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State road repair money may be diverted to cover staff costs

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SPRINGFIELD — Money meant for maintaining state highways could be paying for some of the Illinois Department of Transportation's day-to-day expenses.

By Andrew Thomason

SPRINGFIELD — Money meant for maintaining state highways could be paying for some of the Illinois Department of Transportation's day-to-day expenses.

Gov. Pat Quinn's budget diverts almost $250 million from the state's road fund, fueled by the state's motor fuel tax and vehicle license fees, to pay IDOT's health-care, workers' compensation, and building rent and maintenance costs, according to Transportation for Illinois Coalition, which pushes for an up-to-date transportation infrastructure in Illinois.

Quinn's office did not respond to requests for comment from Illinois Statehouse News.

"Generally people pay gas taxes and license plate fees, because they know the money is going towards the roads," David Kennedy, the coalition's statehouse committee chairman, said.

State statute says road fund money must pay for transportation-related expenses.

"Running a department of transportation is considered a transportation-related expense," IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said.

State Rep. David Reis, R-Willow Hill, said the diversion should worry anyone who drives on state roads, because less money for roads means more potholes for drivers.

"The money is supposed to be used for construction and when (IDOT) starts doing it for other things that dilutes down our ability to do those projects," said Reis, a member of the Illinois House Public Safety Appropriations Committee, which handles budgeting for the road fund.

The diversion of road fund money allows IDOT to make up for its shrinking operating budget. Quinn's proposed budget sets aside $19.2 million for IDOT's day-to-day operations, a decrease from its current operating budget of $21.8 million.

Using money from the road fund to pay for unrelated state programs isn't new.

"This happened in 2004, 2005 and 2006 where the General Assembly voted to divert road fund money to pay for new health-care programs. That put all of our projects behind," Reis said.

Tridgell said workers' compensation and health insurance have been paid out of the road fund to help relieve pressure on the state's general revenue fund, the "checkbook" the state uses for its day-to-day expenses.

Tridgell said using road fund money to cover these daily costs frees up money in the state's operating budget to pay for the rising costs of Medicaid and public pensions, something that could become more commonplace in the future.

"Any discussions about real or perceived diversions from the road fund should include addressing the need to stabilize the pension and Medicaid systems … Without addressing those issues, the pension cost alone could reach $400 million for IDOT by 2018, thus anything done on any other front will quickly be subsumed by the growing pension contribution rates required from the road fund for IDOT employees," Tridgell said.

More than 2,500 miles of roads in the state are deemed unacceptable according to IDOT standards. That's about 15 percent of all state-maintained roads. That number could double by 2018 if nothing is done, bringing the total number of miles of unacceptable state roads to more than 5,000.

State Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, vice chairman of the Illinois House Public Safety Committee, said paying for workers' compensation out of the road fund makes sense.

"There are some costs that are legitimately associated with roads downstate, such as worker comp claims for those people who may be working on road projects who are injured, which are clearly related to roads," he said.

However, nothing is set in concrete at this point in the budgeting process.

"Everything is on the table at this point for this year, there's just been no final decisions made" on how road fund money will be spent, Harris said.

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