by Meganne Trela
The Illinois Supreme Court recently held that an Illinois constitutional amendment preventing municipalities from using transportation-related tax revenues for non-transportation purposes applies to home rule municipalities in Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association v. County of Cook, 2022 IL 127126 (April 21, 2022).
The amendment, known as the “Safe Roads Amendment,” was adopted by nearly 80% of Illinois voters in 2016. It requires that money generated from taxes, fees, excises, and license taxes on transportation infrastructure or operations may only be spent on transportation purposes.
Cook County, a home rule unit of government, had traditionally placed revenues generated from its gas and wheel taxes into its public safety fund. Several public construction and design firms filed suit requesting declaratory and injunctive relief. The associations alleged that their members were missing out on significant transportation projects because of Cook County’s practices. Cook County filed a motion to dismiss alleging that the associations lacked standing to bring the lawsuit and arguing that the plaintiffs failed to state a violation of the constitutional amendment.
In making its argument, Cook County relied on Article VII, Section 6(a) of the Illinois Constitution which provides:
[A] home rule unit may exercise any power and perform any function pertaining to its government and affairs including, but not limited to, the power to regulate for the protection of the public health, safety, morals and welfare; to license; to tax; and to incur debt.
Because the Safe Roads Amendment did not specifically limit the home rule powers of Cook County, Cook County argued that it did not have to comply with the Amendment and could place transportation revenues into the public safety fund. The circuit court agreed with both arguments.
On appeal, the First District Appellate Court also found the plaintiffs failed to show that the Safe Roads Amendment was violated. In both the circuit court and appellate court, Cook County successfully argued that to limit home rule powers, the limitation needed to appear under Section 6(a) of Article VII. In addition, Cook County argued that the ballot summary prepared by the Secretary of State disclaimed any limitation on home rule powers and legislative debate indicated there was no intent to restrict home rule powers.
Then, the plaintiffs appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. Unlike the lower courts, the Supreme Court found that the Safe Roads Amendment did apply to home rule units of government. It did so by relying on the plain language of the Amendment, which does not exclude home rule units of government from its scope. Instead, the Amendment specifically references local governments without regard to whether they are home rule. The court went on to reason that home rule powers were not unfettered, and home rule municipalities have always been constrained by constitutional limits on their power.
The high court also rejected Cook County’s attempt to rely on extrinsic sources to determine the meaning of the Amendment, like the ballot summary and legislative debates. Because the court determined that the language of the Amendment was clear and unambiguous, the language had to be applied “without resort to further aids of statutory construction.” As a result, the court determined that home rule municipalities were bound by the spending constraints in the Safe Roads Amendment and the matter was remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings.
Moving forward, home rule municipalities will need to ensure that the funds they gather through transportation taxes are spent in accordance with the Safe Roads Amendment. If you have a question about home rule powers or the Safe Roads Amendment, contact your attorney.