The Monitor

Safe Roads Amendment Legal Update

Fall/Winter 2022

Kara Principe, Counsel

In our Fall/Winter 2016 Monitor edition, we discussed the historic passage of the Illinois “Safe Roads Amendment” to the Illinois Constitution that passed with nearly 80% of Illinois voters approving the Amendment. The purpose of the Safe Roads Amendment was to ensure all motor fuel taxes, fees for vehicle registrations, license plates, and other transportation-related taxes and fees will be spent to maintain, repair, and build roads, highways, mass transit, and other transportation systems in our communities.

For decades, transportation tax revenue was siphoned from the General Fund and used on other programs funded by the state. The SRA sought to solve this diversion, ensuring infrastructure investment dollars would fund Illinois’ crumbling roads and bridges that had been neglected for far too long.

As discussed in our Spring/Summer 2022 Monitor edition, after passage there were public bodies that were failing to comply with the Amendment. Some localities used their home rule status to determine the Safe Roads Amendment was not applicable to them. Home rule communities in Illinois have significant autonomy in local matters but it was the opinion of labor organizations, contractor associations, and construction industry advocates that the Safe Roads Amendment applied to home-rule communities.

Labor unions and transit organizations did not believe home rule localities should be able to divert transportation-related taxes to non-transportation related purposes because, as passed, the plain language of the SRA protected these revenues specifically for infrastructure investment.

The two differing interpretations came to a head in 2018 when the Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association (“Roadbuilders”) filed a type of lawsuit called an injunction against Cook County, Illinois, aimed at stopping the diversion of the transportation revenue to non-transportation-related expenditures, in violation of the Safe Roads Amendment. The Circuit Court ultimately dismissed that case. The Appellate Court reversed the issue on a procedural basis but found the Amendment did not apply to home-rule communities.

In 2020, the Roadbuilders appealed the Illinois Appellate Court decision which ultimately led to the Illinois Supreme Court agreeing to hear the case where Cook County argued the amendment was “ambiguous.” The III FFC and Local 150 submitted amicus curiae supplemental briefs in support of the Roadbuilders showing the legislative history of the Amendment.

Finally, on April 21, 2022, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled, “There is nothing in the language of [the SRA] to indicate the drafters intended to exclude home-rule units, homerule taxes, or home-rule expenditures from the scope of the Amendment.” The Illinois Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Circuit Court for proceedings consistent with the ruling.

Despite this ruling, it appeared from Cook County budget documents, that the County was continuing to divert revenues in defiance of the Illinois Supreme Court decision and the Safe Roads Amendment.

On July 26, 2022, the Roadbuilders filed a motion for injunctive relief in Circuit Court, meaning the court can order Cook County to halt diverting transportation revenue to non-transportation purposes in violation of the Safe Roads Amendment. Specifically, the Roadbuilders alleged that the County’s Fiscal Year 2023 Budget would divert nearly $250 million in transportation funds to purposes other than transportation. A hearing was held September 29 – 30, 2022, with closing arguments on October 7, 2022.

Unfortunately, on October 19, 2022, the Circuit Court denied Roadbuilders’ motion for injunctive relief, finding that the County had satisfactorily persuaded the Court that it would use transportation-related revenues in Fiscal Year 2023 in ways that would not violate the Amendment and the Roadbuilders had failed to prove otherwise.

On October 22, 2022, the Roadbuilders have appealed the decision to deny its motion for injunctive relief and at the time of writing the case is pending at the Illinois Appellate Court.

The III FFC is hopeful the Appellate Court will reverse the lower court’s ruling denying the Roadbuilders’ motion to stop the County from improperly diverting transportation funds. For the sake of our crumbling infrastructure, middle-class job creation, and in abiding with will of Illinois voters, it is crucial that public bodies comply with the Safe Roads Amendment as interpreted by the Illinois Supreme Court. Organizations like the Roadbuilders and the III FFC will remain vigilant and will zealously advocate for its compliance.

From the Fall/Winter 2022 Issue of The Monitor.