Sunday, May 31, 2009

Down to the wire

By Jamey Dunn and Bethany Jaeger, with Hilary Russell contributing
Some of yesterday’s moving parts actually started revolving around each other late in the day Thursday. The Illinois Senate approved two major revenue enhancements, one a sizable tax hike and another a major gaming expansion. That immediately put the onus on the House, which was in the middle of trying to advance an “insurance budget” to fund agency programs at bare bones levels.

Income tax increases and education funding
The momentum started in the Senate. Democrats tweaked a bill that was intended to address education funding, which would include an income tax increase of 2 percentage points for individuals. It would increase from 3 percent to 5 percent. Different versions of the measure have long been presented by Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago Democrat, but never found the support to pass. However, a looming deadline and $7 billion budget deficit this fiscal year has created new possibilities for an old concept.

One difference this time around is that the plan would only raise the corporate income tax rate from 4.8 percent to 5 percent, a much smaller increase than previously sought. It also would expand the sales tax to include services.

Senate President John Cullerton said the tax restructuring would help solve some of the chronic budget woes, but the plan would still come up $2 billion short of what the state needs to fully fund pensions and to maintain current spending levels. A vote for the tax plan, he said, inherently would be a vote for $2 billion in budget cuts.

House Bill 174 (the "new 750"), would provide some targeted tax relief. It would raise the personal exemption and increase the earned income tax credit over two years to protect low-income residents. It also would provide property tax relief, which attracted Democratic Senators.

Over time, the tax plan would funnel more money into education and higher education, something Meeks wanted for years to address funding disparities between school districts throughout the state.

Republicans opposed the tax increase and sales tax expansion, describing it as a mistake during a recession. Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, said: “There’s a lot of different ways we can go at this if we go line-by-line through this budget, and I know because I’ve done it. This will cause more Illinoisans to lose their jobs, without a doubt.”

The bill passed with only Democratic votes. Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat, gave an emotional speech about making his last-minute choice to vote for the bill. He said he had been praying about his decision and cast the vote that he knew would make his family proud. He said he had been telling leadership that he would vote “present,” but he changed his mind during floor debate. After the vote, Kotowski encouraged some House Republicans to follow suit.

Cullerton said that passing the bill in the Senate may help House Democrats feel safer about changing their minds. However, he said that the bill would need Republican support to pass. “When one chamber starts and passes a bill, they see that we’re still walking around — we’ve got a different version of what the governor has — that there’s a way to do this. So I think it’s a good start.”

But Gov. Pat Quinn is still backing the income tax proposal that has been introduced in the House. “I think the [temporary income tax] plan we have here in the House is probably the one we’ll have to go with. It’s straightforward. It’s pretty simple. It’s for two years. And the whole idea is for at least at this time to hold off dire catastrophes.”

Momentum to consider alternative revenue sources continued with a Senate vote to expand gaming by adding four new facilities, including new gaming facilities in Chicago, Waukegan, Rockford and Danville. Existing gaming facilities, including horse tracks, also could start operating more slot machines. Senate Bill 744 would generate at least $150 million upon issuing the licenses, according to Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat. Once the new facilities were up and running and the economy improved, he said the package could generate up to $1 billion a year.

Building new casinos and riverboats has been tried numerous times in the past few years, and similar proposals haven’t advanced in the House. But, Link said: “They need money and here’s a good way to give them money. So I think it's future is a lot better tonight.”

Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican who would receive a gaming facility in his district through Link’s bill, said the state may need an income tax increase. Then again, he said: “When you’re drowning and a life preserver floats by, your impulse is to grab it. When you have a community that’s so desperate for investment and jobs, you turn to things you normally wouldn’t even consider. I would support the riverboat. I don’t have the luxury to say I don’t.”

Bare bones budget
The so-called “insurance budget” advanced by House Democrats as a back-up plan would fund state agencies at about 80 percent of the level they were funded at last year, which would be about 50 percent of the governor’s proposed budget.

Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie tried early in the day to advance a temporary income tax increase. That wasn’t gaining enough votes. So late Saturday night, Currie tried to at least approve the “insurance budget” to keep the lights on, so to speak. Without it, agencies would be funded at 32 percent of Quinn’s proposed budget.

But after word spread that senators approved an income tax increase across the rotunda, several House Democrats started to peal off support for a bare bones budget. Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat and vocal advocate of human services, urged fellow lawmakers to hold off on a bare bones budget to “continue to fight for more solutions.”

Currie said she would prefer either version of an income tax over a bare bones budget, but it was a way to ensure something landed on the governor’s desk just in case chaos ensued Sunday, the last day of the regularly scheduled session.

If all else fails, Currie said she would call the bare bones budget again before Sunday’s midnight deadline. Here’s what it would do:

On the revenue side:
  • Sweep $356 million from dedicated funds four times throughout the year.
  • Refinance debt to get a 4 percent interest rate and save $600 million next year, saving $237 million over the life of the bonds.
  • Along with tapping into federal funds and starting other efficiencies, it would generate about $1 billion.
On the spending side:
  • State agencies could receive lump sums at half the funding level proposed by the governor.
  • The administration would have to figure out how to spread the money around and to cut certain grant programs.

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