Friday, September 21, 2007

More maneuvering means more fireworks

The governor sidestepped the legislative process again. He announced Thursday that he changed legislation dealing with high property taxes in Cook County, a controversial measure that took a lot of time and a lot of negotiating between legislative chambers. It’s now beholden to the ongoing power struggle between Gov. Rod Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The property tax relief bill approved by both chambers in August would have extended the so-called 7 percent solution, which caps the amount assessments can increase, for another three years (it started in 2004). It also increased the homeowners’ exemption to $33,000 and phased it out over the three years. The governor’s amendatory veto expanded the homeowners’ exemption even more — up to $40,000 — and made it permanent.

Because the governor used an amendatory veto to make the changes, both chambers have three options: agree with the changes, override the changes or let the bill die. If one chamber overrides it but the other doesn’t, the bill dies. Lawmakers would have to run another bill through the legislative process to extend the program that expires this year.

David Eldridge, legislative director for the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois, said that was the intent of the original law: to phase out the 7 percent cap and replace it with a long-term homeowners exemption. “The intention there was to go at the targeted areas in Cook County that really need it rather than do a broad brush and capture areas that didn’t need the 7 percent [cap],” he said.

Now he said there’s worry of a slippery slope. The governor said his maneuver would cover at least 76 percent of Cook County residents, but the Taxpayers’ Federation has feared all along that the tax break would eventually apply to all of Cook County. “The fundamental question is, is it a good idea for 76 percent of Cook County to get this greater relief than the rest of the state gets, when there are other parts of state that are paying higher taxes than Cook County is,” Eldridge said.

That’s because when more people are getting bigger exemptions than they had before, someone else has to pick up the tab. Businesses argue they’re the ones paying a bigger portion of the tax burden.

Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat and original sponsor of the 2004 legislation, said he actually would have supported the governor’s idea if it had gone through the legislative process. But it didn’t, and it led lawmakers to question the move’s constitutionality. “I’m unsure as to whether I can support an action that may have questionable motives and questionable underpinnings under the law,” Lang said.

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