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Groups want hearing on Illiana tax breaks

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SPRINGFIELD — A coalition of environmental groups and opponents of a proposed new toll road in Will County have requested a public hearing on a set of tax breaks being sought for the project.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center helped lead a successful federal lawsuit seeking to block the $1.5 billion Illiana Expressway. It filed the request Wednesday after the Lee Enterprises Springfield bureau reported that Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration is seeking sales tax exemptions for building materials used in the on-again, off-again project.

The tax breaks now pending before the legislature's Joint Committee on Administrative Rules came as a surprise to opponents because Rauner suspended work on the 47-mile road earlier this year as part of a review of state spending.

"To move forward with these rules without providing the public a reasonable opportunity to participate in the rulemaking process would be unfortunate," notes the letter, signed by the heads of 20 environmental and opposition groups, including the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and No Illiana 4 Us.

The sales tax proposal, filed by the Illinois Department of Revenue, is in a public comment stage through Aug. 24.

The Illiana, which would connect Interstate 55 in Will County with Interstate 65 in Indiana, is designed to reduce heavy congestion on interstates 80 and 94.

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Former Gov. Pat Quinn pushed hard for the project to move forward.

And, although Rauner suspended the project, he signed legislation in June that included $5.5 million for ongoing efforts to develop the highway.

Terry Horstman, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Revenue, said the department filed the rules in order to comply with two public acts approved during Quinn's tenure.

"It's just a process the Department of Revenue goes through," Horstman said. "The Department of Revenue is working on the regulations that articulate the statuatory requirement for the tax exemption."

Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, said he found it odd that the rules sat dormant for five years before they were introduced. He said the state's budget problems should keep the project on the sidelines.

"It's just tone deaf for the Department of Revenue to be moving forward with a sales tax exemption for the Illiana boondoggle ... given the state's budget situation," Learner said. "This just seems like a very peculiar time."

It's not clear whether the public hearing will be granted. The opponents failed to file a request within the legal time frame.

In its letter, the group noted, "Although this request is not being filed within 14 days, the proposed rules concern projects in which the public is intensely interested, as demonstrated by the number of signatories to this letter and the number of citizens represented by our organizations, which well exceeds the statutory requirements for a public hearing request."

Indiana officials support the road and are waiting for Illinois to signal it is ready to proceed.


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