Appeal from the Circuit Court of Laky County; the Hon. Henry
H. Caldwell, Judge, presiding.
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE UNDERWOOD DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
The Regional Transportation Authority Act (Ill. Rev. Stat., 1973 Supp. (Feb. 1974), ch. 111 2/3, par. 701.01 et seq.) providing for a regional transportation authority to furnish public transportation services, facilities and funding in the six northeastern counties of Cook, Du Page, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will became effective December 12, 1973. Pursuant to that act, a special referendum election was held in the six affected counties on March 19, 1974, at which a majority of electors properly marking ballots on the proposition voted in favor of creation of the Authority. On May 3 plaintiffs filed this suit for declaratory and injunctive relief against the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) and other defendants on the grounds that the Act and the referendum election were invalid. The Lake County circuit court on June 17 denied the RTA's motion to dismiss and entered a preliminary injunction order restraining defendants from exercising any powers or duties under the Act upon a finding that the referendum ballot was improper. We allowed a direct appeal from those orders pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 302(b) in view of the public importance of the matters presented. That appeal was consolidated with RTA's direct appeal from a subsequent order of the trial court granting a permanent injunction in the same cause. We heard oral argument in late June and announced our judgment shortly thereafter for reasons to be stated in a subsequent opinion. This is that opinion.
Before turning to the specific issues presented for our consideration, we deem it appropriate to briefly review the content and scope of the Regional Transportation Authority Act. The purpose of the Act as stated in section 1.02(b) is "to provide for, aid and assist public transportation in the northeastern area of the State without impairing the overall quality of existing public transportation by providing for the creation of a single authority responsive to the people and elected officials of the area and with the power and competence to provide and facilitate public transportation which is attractive and economical to users, comprehensive, coordinated among its various elements, economical, safe, efficient and coordinated with area and State plans." (Ill. Rev. Stat., 1973 Supp., ch. 111 2/3, par. 701.02.) The Act is a comprehensive one, setting forth in detail the RTA's powers and limitations thereof in such matters as purchase, acquisition and maintenance of facilities; the nature of services to be provided; the level and nature of fares to be charged; coordination and interrelationship of transportation services and programs with State and Federal agencies, other transit authorities and various other governing bodies and units of government; employee welfare and labor relations procedures; finances and the like. In the matter of finances, the RTA is empowered, inter alia, to apply for, receive and expend grants, loans and other funds from the State and Federal governments (par. 704.02); to raise revenue for the operation of the authority by the imposition of a tax on persons engaged in the sale of motor fuel, and compensating use tax and a motor vehicle parking tax under certain conditions (par. 704.03); and to issue and sell specified types of negotiable bonds and notes (par. 704.04).
Plaintiffs' initial contention concerns the form of the proposition presented to the voters at the referendum election. Section 1.04 of the Act provides in pertinent part that "A regional transportation authority shall be established upon a favorable vote at the referendum held as provided in Section 1.05 of this Act." (Par. 701.04.) Section 1.05 provides that:
"A special referendum election shall be held at which there shall be submitted to the electors in the metropolitan region the proposition to approve creation of the Authority, which proposition shall be in substantially the following form:
Shall a Regional Transportation Authority be created for Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will Counties, Illinois?"
The same section goes on to prescribe various details regarding certification of the form of ballot by the State Board of Elections, publication of notice of the referendum election and of the proposition to be voted upon, the counting of ballots and the certification of the election results by the State Board of Elections. The section concludes with the following paragraph:
"The State Board of Elections shall proclaim and certify the results of the referendum election. If a majority of those electors properly marking ballots on the proposition vote in favor of the creation of the Authority, such Authority shall thereby be established."
It is uncontroverted that the proposition appearing on the ballot in the March 19, 1974, referendum election was in the precise language specified by section 1.05 of the Act. Nevertheless, plaintiffs contend that the proposition presented was so vague, indefinite, uncertain, unclear, uninformative and broad as to deprive them of property without due process of law in contravention of the State and Federal constitutions. In this regard, plaintiffs argue that the proposition did not provide the voter with any information as to what he was actually voting for or against, since it did not refer to a specific act to be adopted or rejected or to a particular tax or bond issue for acceptance or rejection. An additional argument is made that the proposition was misleading in that it suggested to the voter that he was being asked to either grant or deny authority to enact legislation creating the RTA whereas in fact the legislature had already enacted legislation on the subject.
In response to these contentions, defendants rely on previous decisions of this court in which we have recognized that when the legislature passes a law with a referendum clause in it and such law prescribes the method by which it is to be submitted to a referendum, that method must be followed. (E.g., People ex rel. Sandberg v. Grabs (1940), 373 Ill. 423; People ex rel. Hudson v. Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Ry. Co. (1935), 360 Ill. 180; People ex rel. Brady v. LaSalle Street Trust and Savings Bank (1915), 269 Ill. 518.) A provision in such a law which specifies the particular form of ballot to be used in a referendum election will normally take precedence over any other statute which would otherwise be applicable but for the special provision. (People ex rel. Duguay v. New York Central R.R. Co. (1952), 411 Ill. 584; Sanders v. Township of Salem (1944), 385 Ill. 362; Knappenberger v. Hughes (1941), 377 Ill. 126.) Defendants also correctly point out that in the absence of any constitutional or statutory mandate to the contrary, it is not necessary that a ballot set forth the details of the proposition to be voted upon or otherwise serve the function of educating voters on its merits. (People ex rel. Royal v. Cain (1951), 410 Ill. 39; Martin v. Hart (1921), 296 Ill. 149; People ex rel. Schnackenberg v. Czarnecki (1912), 256 Ill. 320.) Under those circumstances, a ballot is sufficient if it presents the proposition in such a manner that the voter has a clear opportunity to express his choice either for or against it. (People ex rel. Black v. Sullivan (1910), 247 Ill. 176; People ex rel. Royal v. Cain; Knappenberger v. Hughes.) As this court stated in Martin v. Hart (1921), 296 Ill. 149, at 155: "While the ballot must not contradict the petition [setting forth the details of the proposition to be voted upon] nor permit a vote upon a different question, there is no objection to the generality of a ballot if it directs the attention of the voter to the proposition upon which he is to vote." Indeed, given the complexity of much modern legislative action designed to provide community facilities the operation of which is dependent upon an affirmative vote in the involved geographical area, it is impossible to devise a summary explanation suitable for ballot use which provides the voter with sufficient facts to make an intelligent choice unless he has familiarized himself with the details of the proposition before coming to the polls.
The foregoing authorities do not, however, provide a complete answer to plaintiffs' contentions. The gist of their argument is that the proposition was so completely uninformative and meaningless that the voter had no idea what he was being asked to vote for or against when confronted with the referendum ballot in the polling place. It is argued in addition that publication of the proposition in advance of the election did nothing to help matters, since the proposition itself in no manner directed the voter either to the Act establishing the Authority or to any other source to which he might look to educate himself on the merits of the proposition prior to the date of the election. In this regard we note that while the Act does provide that the proposition itself be published in advance of the election, it does not prescribe that any additional information be published, and no contention is made that any public notice was in fact given that the proposed regional transportation authority was to be created under the Act which became effective December 12, 1973.
The sufficiency of the proposition cannot be totally divorced from the circumstances in which it was submitted. In that context we are not persuaded that the form of proposition prescribed by the Act was impermissibly vague, meaningless and uninformative. Transportation authorities and mass-transit districts are not such obscure entities that persons of ordinary intelligence have no idea what they are. This is particularly true in the northeastern part of this State where the Chicago Transit Authority and a number of mass-transit districts have been in existence for years. The proposition here in question did in very general terms describe what was to be voted upon; namely, whether or not an authority dealing with the subject of transportation should be established in the six named counties. In our opinion the legislature's decision not to set forth any of the specific details of the Act or summarize its salient features in the proposition did not render it infirm. While plaintiffs appear to concede that a proposition stating "Shall the Regional Transportation Act for Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry or Will Counties, Illinois, be adopted?" would have been sufficient, we see no meaningful distinction between that proposition and the one appearing on the ballot insofar as the information thereby conveyed to the voter is concerned. Viewed realistically, we find it difficult to believe that any voter could not rather easily ascertain the source to which he might look in advance of the election to obtain whatever information he might desire about the details of the RTA. It was not, in our judgment, essential that the proposition itself make reference to the source of such information. In addition, such shortcomings as there may have been in the informational aspects of the proposition prescribed by the Act can hardly be considered fatal under the particular facts and circumstances surrounding enactment of the RTA Act and the holding of the election pursuant thereto. We take judicial notice of the fact that the question of whether or not a regional transportation authority should be created was a matter which generated an exceptional amount of attention in the involved area due in large part to extensive news-media coverage for a prolonged period from the time the formation of the RTA was first proposed through the referendum election many months later. Viewing matters in this context, we think there is very little possibility that any voter could have been misled by the proposition or that when casting his vote he did not understand what it was he was voting for or against. While plaintiffs argue that Ashcraft v. Estill County (Ky. 1956), 290 S.W.2d 31, and Vincent v. City of Bowling Green (Ky. 1961), 349 S.W.2d 694, bar attaching any significance to news-media coverage, those cases were concerned with questions of substituting news stories for statutorily required notices and are inapposite here.
Plaintiffs further contend that the referendum election was illegal and void in that the proposition offered in the ballot at the election did not present a law for approval by electors voting on the question as provided in subparagraphs (a) and (b) of section 9 of article IX of the 1970 Constitution. The constitutional provisions in question deal with the subject of State debt. State debt is defined in section 9(a) as "bonds or other evidences of indebtedness which are secured by the full faith and credit of the State or are required to be repaid, directly or indirectly, from tax revenue and which are incurred by the State, any department, authority, public corporation or quasi-public corporation of the State, any State college or university, or any other public agency created by the State, but not by units of local government, or school districts." (Emphasis added.) Section 9(b) then goes on to provide in part that "State debt for specific purposes may be incurred or the payment of State or other debt guaranteed in such amounts as may be provided either in a law passed by the vote of three-fifths of the members elected to each house of the General Assembly or in a law approved by a majority of the electors voting on the question at the next general election following passage." In our opinion the foregoing State debt provisions of section 9 of article IX are not applicable to this case for the reason that no "State debt" is created under the RTA Act. (See People ex rel. Hanrahan v. Caliendo (1971), 50 Ill.2d 72.) The establishment of the Authority does not of itself constitute the creation of State debt nor does the Act indirectly do so because of the fact that the RTA is authorized to issue bonds and notes. The Act provides in section 1.04 that "Upon its establishment the authority shall be a unit of local government * * *." (Par. 701.04.) As indicated above, section 9(a) of article IX of the Constitution expressly provides that debts incurred by units of local government do not constitute State debt. Furthermore, section 4.04(c) of the Act provides: "All bonds or notes of the Authority issued pursuant to this Section shall be general obligations of the Authority to which shall be pledged the full faith and credit of the Authority * * *. No such bonds or notes shall constitute a debt of the State of Illinois." (Par. 704.04(c).) (Emphasis added.) In our opinion, there are no provisions in the Act which contradict the legislative declarations as to the Authority being a unit of local government or the debts created thereby not being considered State debt. In this regard we have given due consideration to section 4.04(e) of the Act, which provides: "The State of Illinois pledges to and agrees with the holders of the bonds and notes of the Authority issued pursuant to this Section that the State will not limit or alter the rights and powers vested in the Authority by this Act so as to impair the terms of any contract made by the Authority with such holders or in any way impair the rights and remedies of such holders until such bonds and notes, together with interest thereon, with interest on any unpaid installments of interest, and all costs and expenses in connection with any action or proceedings by or on behalf of such holders, are fully met and discharged. ...