SPRINGFIELD — The days of rock-bottom gasoline prices in Illinois could be numbered. With gasoline selling for less than $2 per gallon throughout much of the state, Gov. Bruce Rauner and his allies in the business community are talking about "restructuring" the state's motor fuel tax to raise money to pay for a statewide construction program.
Documents obtained by the Quad-City Times' Springfield Bureau outline the workings of a possible plan designed to finance an estimated $1.8 billion in road building and maintenance projects.
In addition to boosting the gasoline tax by 13 cents a gallon, the outline shows other revenue options under investigation include a 2 percent sales tax on food and drugs, increasing the cost of registering and titling cars by $20 annually and boosting the cost of driver's licenses by $5 a year.
Under one scenario, the increases would be tempered with a decrease in the state's 6.25 percent sales tax on motor fuel sales to 1.25 percent.
"We've presented some ideas to the leaders," said Todd Maisch, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, which is part of a coalition seeking to jump-start a statewide construction program.
In his State of the State speech on Wednesday, Rauner broadly hinted at his support of such a plan. In a document accompanying his address, Rauner calls for a restructuring of "the motor fuel tax to appropriately invest in infrastructure."
A Rauner aide said the governor is not involved in the talks at this point.
"What’s being circulated by some advocacy groups is not the governor’s plan and does not have his blessing," spokesman Lance Trover said.
Maisch said none of the legislative leaders nor the governor's office has committed to supporting a plan.
Although many parts of the Republican governor's speech rankled Democratic members of the General Assembly, initiatives that result in statewide construction programs are among the few issues that bring both parties together.
Such programs typically result in higher taxes, but they also generate jobs and infrastructure improvements throughout the state.
The push for a new road and bridge initiative comes as the state's current construction program, financed by higher taxes on alcohol, higher fees on car licenses and the legalization of video gambling, is expiring.
Steve Brown, a spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, said the Chicago Democrat supports the concept of a statewide construction program because of the jobs its creates. But he said the speaker is waiting for the governor to signal where he stands.
"We'll see where the administration wants to go to work on something like that," Brown said. "It certainly would be a way to help put some people to work."
Under the proposal circulating in the Capitol, the state's current 19-cent tax on a gallon of gas would jump by 13 cents.
Under the plan, however, motorists could see some relief by the elimination of most of the sales tax on gas. The trade-off would result in a reduction of $700 million in revenue to the state's general checkbook at a time when the state already is facing a massive budget shortfall from the January expiration of the temporary income tax.
Supporters are banking on low gasoline prices to soften the blow of a higher tax rate, but there is opposition to the idea.
Retailers are concerned a higher gasoline tax could trigger even more border hopping by Illinoisans looking for cheaper gas, particularly in lower-tax Missouri.
"We're very much opposed to it," said William Fleischli, executive vice president of the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association. "It makes the trip over the border more profitable for our Illinois citizens."
Some lobbying groups are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the concept.
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association has in the past opposed raising the gasoline tax, primarily because there have not been accompanying details on how the added revenue would be spent.
"We're going to wait for the details," the associations' chief, Rob Karr, said.