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The Illinois gas tax break: Does it make for good policy or politics?

Carl Nelson

The Illinois gas tax was scheduled to go up by two cents this month but instead, it was suspended for the rest of the year. It's part of the temporary tax breaks package legislators passed in the spring that Democrats are calling relief, while Republicans are calling it a gimmick.

State Senator Dave Syverson, a Republican representing parts of northern Illinois, said Gov. JB Pritzker and Democrats are giving the appearance the gas tax was suspended altogether, when only a portion of it has been delayed.

“That's the tricky part,” Syverson said. “They tried to mislead people. So, what the governor did was suspend the two-cent gas tax increase that was supposed to go into effect July one. And he put that off until after the election.”

Northern Illinois University economics professor Jeremy Groves said in 2019, under Gov. Pritzker, the gas sales tax went from a flat tax to a percentage. Thus, the tax went up from 19 cents to the gallon to 38 cents to the gallon. The tax has increased by a penny since then to adjust for inflation.

Groves said the change to a tax based on a percentage is in the best interest of the state.

“Building in that inflationary increase is a good idea, because you don't have to worry about 10 years down the road — 39 cents is not going to buy as much as it does today.”

The revenue generated by the tax goes to maintaining state roads and highways.

Democratic legislators and the governor have touted the gas tax delay as a win for families, but Groves said drivers may not see much of a benefit.

“It's really more a talking point than a reality for consumers,” he said.

Drivers may save sixty to eighty cents for every $20 dollars spent to fill the gas tank, he said, but the state also loses out on millions in revenue.

“Given the infrastructure projects the state needs to take care of, and the budget issues that the state has had, [it’s] probably not worth it to the state,” he said.

But with November elections coming up, the tax relief plan gives legislators something to refer to when speaking to voters.

“It's so important politically for the government to do something, right, because these are the everyday people who will notice when gasoline goes up 50 cents a gallon,” Groves said. “They're especially going to notice when it goes up two, three dollars a gallon. They're going to see this, and it's going to really impact their budget.”

For people who depend on driving to get to work, they want something done about the high gas prices, Grove said.

According to the US Census, the average amount of time Americans spend getting to work is close to half an hour, a record high since 2006. Soaring housing costs contribute to people living further away from where they work. The longer drive means they’re spending more on gas.

Senator Syverson agrees with who is most affected by the rising gas prices.
“It’s devastating working families that have to commute a lot. This extra tax that's being paid just isn't right. And so we're going to continue to push to get that rolled back.”

Pritzker was not available for comment on this story. But in a press statement in June, he said, "It's more important than ever to have a government whose first focus is on working families and those who are struggling, and leadership that provides new and creative ways to deliver relief when you need it most."

The tax relief plan also includes a tax break on school supplies that runs from August 5th through the 14th. The groceries sales tax has also been suspended this month and will be in effect until June 2023.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.