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Lawmakers: Road funds rarin’ to go

Published: Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 12:13 p.m. CDT

State road projects could get a jump-start this year if lawmakers approve $675 million in new revenue to get them moving before the spring thaw.

The bill stalled last month in the lame-duck session of the Illinois Senate, but supporters said they hope that it is resurrected, and passed, soon after the General Assembly reconvenes Tuesday.

There was a $175 million infusion of federal money after Congress adopted a new national transit strategy last summer. An additional $500 million of state money has come in, partly from healthy motor-fuel tax revenues and previous transportation projects that ended up costing less than lawmakers budgeted.

Supporters include Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Transportation for Illinois Coalition. Whitley said the money already is there and won’t mean an additional burden to taxpayers.

“In the political vernacular, this should be a no-brainer,” Whitley said. “The program’s in place. The money needs to be reallocated. The General Assembly just has to give it the green light.”

State Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, shared similar sentiments. “It’s new money, it’s found money, and it’s going to allow us to take projects already approved, with the engineering done, and move them forward,” she said.

The bill never cleared committee during the last days of the previous General Assembly. Opponents said it took away money that had been promised to horse tracks, and they objected to funds in the bill slated for Chicago Public Schools. The bill also allocated about $27 million saved from the closings of prisons and juvenile facilities that supporters wanted to spend to avoid layoffs at the Department of Children and Family Services.

The “new money” aspect could be politically palatable to a Legislature grappling with a $96 billion unfunded pension liability and more than $9 billion in unpaid bills. Also, state lawmakers Thursday scuttled a plan to borrow $500 million for road and infrastructure improvements because of the latest downgrade of the state’s credit rating.

Standard & Poor’s last week downgraded Illinois’ credit rating to A-, just four notches above junk. It cited lawmakers’ inability to agree on pension reform and warned that it could downgrade Illinois further over the issue.

Fitch in January put Illinois’ rating on a negative outlook, and Moody’s Investors Service recently downgraded Illinois’ rating. The state ranks last of all 50 states in S&P and Moody’s ratings, and 49th in Fitch’s.

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