Judge dismisses lawsuit alleging required signage on Illinois gas tax freeze violates free speech | Government and politics

CHICAGO — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by a group representing gas station owners who fought a requirement for businesses to post signs announcing a state gas tax freeze as part of Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s $1.8 billion tax relief package.

The Illinois Fuel & Retail Association argued in its lawsuit that the provision would require gas stations to display political posters and was an unconstitutional violation of free speech.

But in a 20-page ruling released Thursday, U.S. District Judge Sue E. Myerscough determined that the posting contained only a “purely factual statement” about the new law.

“The posting does not contain controversial statements,” she wrote. “Complainants cite no case law or authority, binding or otherwise, to support their contention that the signage is political.”

Myerscough also wrote that the information in the signage “furthers the Defendants’ stated goal of ‘ensuring that customers are genuinely informed and benefit from the General Assembly’s suspension of the inflation adjustment of the gas tax”.

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The requirement, which was passed by the Illinois General Assembly in its truncated spring session, calls on gas stations to post a 4-inch-by-8-inch sign notifying drivers of a tax freeze on gasoline for the second half of 2022, starting July 1.

The lawsuit was originally filed last month in Sangamon County Court before moving to federal court in early June.

Josh Sharp, CEO of the fuel and retail organization, said Myerscough’s ruling, which preceded a hearing scheduled for Friday that was later canceled, defied “common sense and the Constitution.”

“I think it was absolutely rushed by the judge,” Sharp said. “This type of speech should be relegated to campaign ads and direct mail.”

The group, which Sharp said is planning to appeal, argued that the signage requires gas stations to “speak on behalf of the Illinois government” or face a $500 fine for each day they do not publish the notice.

As evidence that the sticker requirement is “undoubtedly political,” the lawsuit cited a Pritzker campaign ad that boasted “JB froze the gas tax,” and also cited comments from the Democratic State Rep. Mike Zalewski of Riverside during a committee hearing on the matter. Zalewski, who sponsored the measure, said when drivers fill up their tanks later this year, “their eyes will be on the pump and maybe they’ll read about the good things we’ve done.”

The six-month pause in the annual inflation-based gas tax increase is part of a larger effort by Pritzker and the Democrats who control the legislature to show voters they are taking action against rising consumer prices. Republicans rejected the package, which also includes a one-year food tax suspension, property tax refunds of up to $300 and direct payments to many taxpayers, as a gimmick of the year. electoral.

The state gasoline tax, currently 39.2 cents per gallon, was set to increase 2.4 cents on July 1, according to the state Department of Revenue. But with Pritzker signing off on the tax relief plan, that increase will be pushed back until January 1, with the exact amount of the increase to be determined by inflation at the end of September. Drivers will be affected by another increase on July 1, 2023.

Gas station owners also argued they were being treated differently than other businesses whose customers will benefit from the tax breaks. Supermarkets, for example, will be required, “where possible”, to print a notice on their receipts that the 1% sales tax on groceries has been waived for a year. If it cannot be printed on the receipt, “then the retailer must display the statement on a sign clearly visible to customers”.

But grocery stores, unlike gas stations, will not be fined if they fail to comply, a deviation that is “a flagrant violation of plaintiffs’ equal protection rights guaranteed by the constitutions of the United States and the State of Illinois’ fuel and retail group also alleged in its lawsuit.

Myerscough, however, accepted the defendants’ argument that the complaint was “legally insufficient” because the mandatory signage was part of a law for a legitimate governmental purpose that “does not infringe on a fundamental right or discriminate on a basis for further consideration”.

The Republican minority in the legislature chastised Democrats for passing the measure, prompting Democrats to call their GOP colleagues hypocrites because GOP lawmakers pushed a similar election-year proposal two decades ago.