FILE - Martin Sandoval, federal raid

Men carrying boxes and a bag marked "evidence" leave the Illinois State Capital in Springfield in this Sept. 24, 2019, file photo.

Illinois drivers paid an extra $100 million in gas taxes this July, according to new state reporting. That’s because Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a doubling of the state’s gas tax to fund an infrastructure package. And the hike took effect July 1.

But the political driver of that package is now hitting the skids.

In September, federal agents ran three raids on the home and offices of state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago. Sandoval is chairman of the powerful Senate Transportation Committee and chaired Pritzker’s transition committee on infrastructure. A steady stream of news regarding federal activity has followed: additional raids on at least three municipal offices outside Chicago, allegations of pay-to-play politics with red-light camera companies, and a Cook County commissioner who has seemingly disappeared.

In other words, typical Illinois.

Unfortunately, so was Pritzker’s response. And he’s not alone.

In an Oct. 2 press conference, the governor was clearly aware of the scandal’s effect on the politics of the gas tax hike. He called for Sandoval to step down.

“While Senator Sandoval is under investigation, it’s in the best interest of our state that he no longer serve as chairman of the transportation committee,” Pritzker said. “If he doesn’t step aside, he should be removed.”

Calling for a temporary replacement to head the Senate Transportation Committee is a basic first step. Pritzker is correct to call for it. And Senate President John Cullerton’s subsequent refusal to remove Sandoval from that post is concerning, even to members of his own Senate caucus.

But a new coat of paint on a jalopy won’t fix the engine.

Without reform, the next Springfield scandal is just around the corner.

Pritzker assured taxpayers three times in his press conference that the project selection process in the $45 billion infrastructure package was “on the up and up.” But those are just words.

Without objective scoring, resources will go not to the areas of highest need, but to the backyards of the most clouted. Sandoval or no Sandoval.

Illinois’ current capital spending process invites corruption. So instead of political promises to abide by existing procedures, which independent research groups have already said are inadequate, Pritzker should work with the Illinois General Assembly to start fresh.

Other anti-corruption measures have also been ripened as a result of the Sandoval scandal. Leaders should pursue them.

One is to end the pay-to-play racket of red light camera programs.

SafeSpeed LLC, a red light camera company, has emerged as a common theme between federal raids on Sandoval and the villages of Lyons, McCook and Summit. SafeSpeed and its executives have for years given money to Sandoval’s campaign. The company also has a red-light camera contract with Summit, and employs as a consultant Patrick Doherty, the chief of staff for Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, who moonlights as mayor of McCook.

These cameras are government cash machines, generating millions of dollars for tiny political fiefdoms. But academic studies show little safety benefit, and even reveal increases in rear-end crashes as drivers slam on their brakes to avoid tickets of up to $100.

They are revenue vehicles, not safety vehicles.

Thankfully, a bipartisan group of state representatives – including Republican David McSweeney and Democrat Rita Mayfield – are backing House Bill 323, which would ban the cameras statewide.

Another much-needed fix is empowering the state’s legislative inspector general to at least the level of the Chicago inspector general. Currently, the LIG must seek approval from state lawmakers to open investigations on state lawmakers. No wonder the feds had to get involved.

As the Sandoval scandal develops, Illinoisans should be careful not to confuse personnel changes for reform.

The system is what’s broken. The system needs fixing.

Austin Berg is a Chicago-based writer with the Illinois Policy Institute who wrote this column for The Center Square. Austin can be reached at aberg@illinoispolicy.org.

Contributing Columnist

Austin Berg's award-winning work has been featured in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, and he has appeared on ABC 7 Chicago and WTTW. Berg was also the writer of the documentary film “Madigan: Power. Privilege. Politics.”