Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tax talk

It’s almost like we’ve come full circle. The spring session started with momentum behind talk of state tax increases to address funding for education, public employee pensions and health care. But the Statehouse chatter fizzled by the time the General Assembly missed its May 31 deadline to approve a state budget. Now, 48 days later, a couple tax ideas have popped back into summer budget negotiations.

It’s like déjà vu. House Speaker Michael Madigan announced on Chicago talk radio and to the Statehouse press Wednesday that the best way for Gov. Rod Blagojevich to get new revenue is to consider that the majority of House Democrats support some kind of an income tax increase. But Blagojevich has repeatedly and passionately promised to reject an increase in the state income or sales tax. The only possible change is by Senate President Emil Jones Jr., who has sided with the governor since he first proposed the now defunct gross receipts tax on businesses to fund health care. Jones said Wednesday, however, he would consider an income tax increase.

“[HB] 750 had the regressive sales tax, which I strongly oppose,” Jones said after a budget meeting in the governor’s Statehouse office. “But I’m open to the income tax, as well.” (The 750 legislation has long called for an increase in income and sales taxes to reduce property taxes and reform the way the state funds education.) When asked whether he could change the governor’s mind on an income tax increase, Jones said, “The governor was opposed to gaming, and I persuaded him to back off his opposition to gaming. And so if the House passes the income tax as the speaker indicated on WVON, he should go ahead and pass the legislation, and we would give it a strong consideration in the Senate.”

Madigan even made a point to tell the press that he had dinner with Jones Tuesday night in Springfield. “The most significant thing for me coming out of the meeting was that Sen. Jones strongly indicated that he was willing to work with me to finalize the budget for the next fiscal year,” Madigan said. He also said gaming was not in the budget that he was preparing.

But Jones said he wouldn’t accept a budget without gaming expansion unless Madigan came up with an alternative revenue source to fund Jones’ desired $1.5 billion increase in education funding. Jones said other revenue ideas still on the table include the closure of some corporate tax breaks and an alternative minimum tax, which would apply to businesses that make a lot of money but that don’t pay a lot of state taxes. The way to come up with a compromise on alternative revenue ideas, Jones said, was up to the speaker. “Now it’s up to [Madigan] to provide the quality leadership to get additional dollars we need for education — quality leadership.”

Senate Republicans oppose the idea of an income tax increase, according to Sen. Minority Leader Frank Watson. But his caucus’ votes wouldn’t be needed if the Senate Democrats utilized their veto-proof majority of 37 to 22. Over in the House, Republicans would be needed to override to a governor’s veto on an income tax increase.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross wasn’t feeling today’s leaders' meeting as he made an early exit. “We’re having the same discussion that we had in January, February, March, April, May, June, and now July,” he said, raising his voice a little more than normal and seeming more perturbed. “We’ve had a budget process, we’ve had a committee process, we have caucuses, and we hear political rhetoric and political speeches everyday, and it doesn’t bring us any closer to conclusion.”

Poll results favor Illinois Covered
Will the results of a poll released today by Lake Research Partners make some lawmakers change their tune about the governor’s Illinois Covered proposal? One survey question in particular foreshadows campaign season. When asked whether they would be more likely to re-elect their legislator if he or she supported the governor's health insurance plan, out of the 600 likely Illinois voters surveyed, 55 percent said they would. That number breaks down to 67 percent Democrats, 40 percent Republicans and 52 percent Independents.

Participants also were asked whether they would support a plan if it were paid for by an increase in gaming taxes, a tax on employers who don’t offer comprehensive health insurance and an insurance premium based on the ability to pay. Seventy-eight percent were in favor of those three funding sources; 15 percent opposed and 8 percent were undecided.

People also identified that they thought the focus for this summer's special sessions should be health care costs and health care reform (88 percent), education investments and reform (80 percent), improving roads and transportation (65 percent), as well as unfunded state pensions (53 percent).

“The people of Illinois are telling us that health care is their top priority and we cannot let them down,” said Gov. Rod Blagojevich in a press release today. “This year in Illinois, we have a unique opportunity to pass the most comprehensive health care plan in the country that would give every family and small business in our state access to affordable health coverage.”

The poll was sponsored by America’s Agenda Health Care Education Fund, the AARP, the AFL-CIO and the Campaign for Better Health Care. All of those organizations supported Blagojevich’s Illinois Covered plan from the beginning.

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