It is no secret that Illinois needs to improve its roads and bridges. Both Republicans and Democrats can agree that we need to invest in infrastructure development. But how we should pay for it is another matter. Most road projects are supported by the gas tax. While this tax worked well for many years, in recent years it has not generated sufficient revenue. Competing government objectives are partly to blame for the shortfalls. Government mandates for better fuel efficiency have reduced the amount of gas people need to buy. Now, the same amount of driving generates less gas tax revenue.
One idea to generate new revenue is a “Vehicle Miles Traveled” (VMT) tax, or just a mileage tax. Conceptually, it is very simple: drivers pay a fee based on the number of miles they travel. In practice, there are significant issues in implementing such a tax. Mileage taxes have a unique infrastructure issue in addition to all of the normal political issues regarding new taxes.
The technology problem
Mileage taxes do not enjoy the same bureaucratic infrastructure that helps with normal taxation. There is already a record of every transaction for the gas tax or other sales tax. Property taxes have the assessment system to know how much a property is worth. But even though every car has an odometer, there is no centralized tracking of how many miles any particular vehicle has traveled.
Relying on individuals to report their mileage would likely prove unreliable and inconvenient. Without some independent reading of the odometer, people might misreport how many miles they traveled, just as online sales tax long went under-reported. It would also be a huge pain for taxpayers. Annual or quarterly reporting would stick drivers with huge bills. More frequent reporting would result in smaller bills, but higher compliance costs.
Some technical solution would thus be necessary to ensure compliance. Only tracking the change in mileage could be done in a relatively nonintrusive way. But such a simple measure would not be sufficient. It is doubtful Illinois could levy a tax on miles driven in other states, or miles driven on privately owned roads. More sophisticated tracking would thus be necessary to tell when a vehicle traveled taxable miles. GPS tracking would be highly reliable for this, but raises major privacy concerns.
The political problems
Any mileage tax system would necessarily introduce some degree of increased government surveillance. The systems that would be legal to implement require high levels of GPS tracking. That alone would make a mileage tax politically toxic.
But there are other issues that make a mileage tax unpopular. Rural areas would be hit hardest due to the longer distances residents travel. Farmers would be hit particularly hard. And of course, any new tax is a tax increase, which historically is not popular. A VMT would raise the general tax burden in the state, which is already much higher than our neighbors.
Although Republicans from other states have expressed interest in the idea of a mileage tax, Illinois Republicans have come out strongly against the idea. Governor Bruce Rauner has repeatedly spoken out against the idea. He highlighted the technical necessity of a tracking device for any such scheme to work. State Representative Avery Bourne (R-95) also noted that the privacy was “another reason” to oppose a mileage tax. Congressman Rodney Davis (R13) said that he was “not as big a proponent of the VMT” as other revenue options. Davis said that the tracking issue would “impact” the ability to pass a mileage tax at the federal level.
Rauner and other Republicans have used the mileage tax issue in their attacks on the Democrats as well. Rauner has repeatedly claimed that JB Pritzker wants to implement a mileage tax. Although Pritzker has said the idea is “worth exploring,” Pritzker has denied having a plan to implement such a tax. Democrats have pushed mileage taxes in the past, but the effort was withdrawn in the face of stiff opposition. That plan had options for both GPS tracking and flat-fee options.
Langfelder remains confident in his Township merger question
Springfield is on its way to eliminating a unit of government. Capital Township, which is coterminous with the City of Springfield, is moving towards consolidation. Currently, Sangamon County is trying to get the township to merge with the county. But Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder is pushing the effort for the township to be merged into the city.
The County’s effort had strong momentum going for it before the election. Both the township board and the county have approved the merger. To further solidify their mandate, they put a non-binding question on the November 6th ballot. That question asked if the county and township should pursue a full merger. The effort passed with 75 percent support, or 31,800 votes.
Despite the progress the County’s effort is making, Langfelder still thinks the city should take over the township. He remains confident that voters will support his ballot question. But that support will have to come in two parts. Because the Springfield City Council declined to endorse his question, Langfelder will need signatures to get on the April ballot at all, in addition to getting votes on Election Day.
Republicans Davis and LaHood hold onto congressional seats
Both Congressmen who serve the Springfield area retained their seats last night. Darin LaHood (R-18) and Rodney Davis (R-13) will be going back to Washington DC. LaHood had a decisive victory with 67.5 percent of the vote against Democrat Junius Rodriguez who took 32.5 percent. Davis had a much closer race. He won out over Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan by a margin of just 3,700 votes.
But Illinois Congressional races generally went towards the Democrats. The 6th District went to Sean Casten over Republican incumbent Peter Roskam. Lauren Underwood came out over Republican incumbent Randy Hultgren in the 14th. These races were part of the Democrats retaking of the US House of Representatives. Illinois now has 13 Democratic and 5 Republican Congressional Representatives.
Even in the races they won, Republicans have reasons to be concerned. LaHood received 57,000 fewer votes in his rematch against Rodriguez than he did in 2016. Rodriguez’s total dropped just 3,000 votes. Davis faced a similar situation. Where the Democrats actually gained 5,000 votes in the 13th, Davis’ total declined by 52,000.
While a win is a win, even these high points of last night’s election should be worrying to the Illinois Republican Party.
Sales tax and township consolidation propositions pass
In addition to the candidates running for office, there were several questions on the ballot for voters in Sangamon County. One question was if Capital Township should be consolidated with Sangamon County. The other was if there should be a one percent sales tax to help schools pay for facility improvements.
Both questions passed. The township question passed handily with 75 percent of the vote. The sales tax was approved much more narrowly, 53 to 47 percent.
Because it was a non-binding question, the township vote will do nothing by itself. It will, however, strengthen the case for the county and township to consolidate.
The sales tax referendum was a binding question, and will go into effect July of 2019. It is expected to raise about $10 million for District 186, and another $10 million for other districts in Sangamon County.