Extra state fuel taxes may help fund energy programs

By Richard Snowden

With natural gas prices skyrocketing, some Illinois legislators hope to offset the impact of those prices on impoverished households with excess money gained from state fuel taxes.

One of those legislators, State Representative Bob Pritchard (R-Hinckley), said the state legislature plans to consider a bill in the near future that would require excess state fuel tax revenues to be spent on initiatives that would help low-income people and families with heating costs.

Pritchard sees windfall

“The idea is to use the excess income from fuel taxes to assist people who need help with their heating bills,” Pritchard said. “With gas costs as high as they are, there are a lot of people out there who will need help this winter.”

Thanks to this year’s record gasoline prices, Illinois reaped significantly higher revenues from fuel taxes than usual, Pritchard said.

“We’re looking at several hundred million [extra] dollars,” he said. “We’ve had a real windfall in fuel taxes this year with the sharp rise in gas prices, and I think we can use that windfall to help people in need.”

The proposal would see profits from fuel taxes disbursed to programs such as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program to help offset high utility costs.

“Every year, the money the state gives to programs like LIHEAP is exhausted early,” Pritchard said. “So we felt like it would be a good idea to use the excess fuel tax profits to shore up those programs.”

Governor’s office disputes gains

Pritchard said he is not sure whether the proposal will be successful.

“I’m not optimistic that we’ll be able to do it since the governor wants to keep funds in the general fund, so first we’ll have to get the bill passed,” he said. “Our first choice was to give the money back to motorists who had to pay the extra fuel taxes, but the governor didn’t want to do that; so we in the legislature decided we should at least try to use the excess money to help people.”

Becky Carroll, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s Office of Management and Budget, disputed those claims.

“There actually is no windfall to the state from increased collection of fuel taxes,” Carroll said. “Over the past several months, consumers have spent less on other things because of higher fuel costs, especially retail and services, and that has cut into our tax revenues.”

Other programs in place

Carroll said Blagojevich is taking other steps to help Illinois residents address the high cost of heating their homes this winter.

“We’ve actually increased funding for LIHEAP this year,” she said. “Also, our Keep Illinois Warm initiative is very comprehensive. We have a Web site that people can visit, www.keepwarm.illinois.gov, and a toll-free number, 1-877-411-WARM, where people can access information on initiatives designed to help people stay warm this winter.”