Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Chamber of Commerce Hypocrisy and Transportation Funding

We shouldn't expect too much intellectual rigor or honesty from special interest groups like the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. Nevertheless, the Chamber's role in the transportation funding debate is hypocritical to an unusual degree.

The Chamber is co-sponsor, with AFSCME, of the Transportation for Illinois Coalition (TFIC). TFIC advocates for increased funding for Illinois' transportation infrastructure. It has proposed increasing transportation funding by $5 billion a year over the next 5 years and organized a Springfield rally in support of that cause. So far, so good.

TFIC recently assembled a distinguished group of local public officials--Bob Shillerstrom, the Chairman of the DuPage County Board; Suzi Schmidt, the Chairman of the Lake County Board; Gerald Bennett, Mayor of Palos Hills; and Jeff Schielke, Mayor of Batavia--for a press conference on the issue of transit funding. According to the accompanying press release, the group "called on legislators and the Governor to make comprehensive funding for Illinois transportation a priority this year."

Crain's covered the event and its article noted that the TFIC was unwilling to propose how the State of Illinois was going raise $25 billion over five years to pay for the TFIC plan:

While officials from Lake County, Palos Hills, Batavia and elsewhere lined up at a downtown Chicago news conference Tuesday to press their cases for more transit funds, which they said would foster economic and job growth, none would recommend where that money should come from.

The officials seem content to leave that decision in the hands of Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the General Assembly.

That a special interest group pushes for increased funding without identifying a funding source is hardly news either. Yet, the Chamber's role is much more troubling, even pernicious. Unlike its captive TFIC special interest group, which won't go on record with a recommendation for how to raise new revenue, the Governor has publicly proposed a sizeable new tax, the gross receipts tax.

At the very time it is browbeating the Governor and the General Assembly to put $25 billion of new money into transportation, the Chamber is pulling out all the stops to defeat the gross receipts tax. A media report of yesterday's speech by Doug Whitley, the head of the Chamber, gives some idea of how strongly the Chamber is mobilizing against the Governor's tax plan:

Halting what would be the nation's largest state tax increase in a decade was the battle cry as local business owners gathered at the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon Monday.

Illinois Chamber of Commerce President Doug Whitley called Gov. Blagojevich's proposed gross receipts tax "highly risky" and "a threat to the future of business opportunities in the state of Illinois."

"The tax would be onerous to businesses, would cause businesses to reassess their involvement in the state of Illinois," Whitley said. "Raising billions and billions of dollars through a gross receipts tax is highly suspect and a questionable policy for our state to pursue."

So, on the one hand the Chamber through its transportation lobbying arm pushes for $5 billion annually in new transportation funding. This amount, incidentally, would eat up over 80 percent of the projected amount in net revenue from the imposition of the gross receipts tax and repeal of the corporate income tax.

On the other hand, the Chamber aggressively whips up the business community against the gross receipts tax, without proposing any alternative method for funding transportation initiatives--or any other important initiatives like healthcare or education. This anti-tax fervor will make it all the more difficult for the General Assembly to pass the gross receipts tax or some other revenue generating measure.

This kind of hypocritical behavior certainly is unlikely to endear TFIC and its transportation agenda to the Governor and the General Assembly. It makes one want to pick up the populist cudgel and apply it firmly to the Chamber and its allies. Unfortunately, transportation funding could well be the first casualty of the battle over the gross receipts tax that the Chamber is fomenting.

No comments: