State lawmakers split as budget deadline looms

Unsure what final week will bring

Local House lawmakers are split over what the final week of the spring session will bring when it comes to approving a 2015 budget.

Last week’s session was a roller coaster, even by Illinois General Assembly standards. It started with House lawmakers narrowly approving a budget that counts on the “temporary” 67 percent tax increase being made permanent rather than expiring as long promised. In the middle was House Speaker Michael Madigan conceding that he had nowhere near the 60 votes needed to keep the tax hike, which will significantly decrease Jan. 1, or halfway through the next state fiscal year beginning July 1.

And it ended Friday with lawmakers soundly rejecting a “doomsday budget” that slashed education and social service funding to compensate for the lost revenue – a budget that McHenry County’s representatives, Republican and Democrat alike, blasted as a scare tactic meant to push for a tax increase.

“It was just political theater. It was a joke. It wasn’t a real budget,” state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, said. “Clearly, and without much pain, we can reduce spending and allow the tax increase to expire.”

State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, said Friday’s budget vote, which he called “political shenanigans of a budget designed to fail,” will not change enough Democratic minds to support the tax increase. Franks said he has made a number of proposals to cut costs and wasteful spending that would considerably close the gap, which he said seem to be falling on deaf ears.

Franks vehemently opposes making the tax permanent and voted against the original increase. Madigan said after a Thursday party caucus that only 34 Democrats support making the increase permanent, with “a little over 30” opposed.

“I think it’s possible they could get those votes, but I think that’s highly unlikely,” Franks said Friday.

It will be more unlikely as of midnight May 31, when the number of votes needed to pass legislation that takes effect immediately, like a budget, increases from simple majority to three-fifths majority until the end of the year, or from 60 to 71 votes in the House. Should that deadline be missed, the issue of whether to let the tax expire or keep it and break the promise made to taxpayers certainly will become a key component of the November election and a tight race between incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and Republican challenger Bruce Rauner.

Illinois workers have paid on average an extra week’s salary in income taxes since Democratic lawmakers raised tax rates in January 2011 without a single Republican vote. The flat tax was raised on individuals from 3 to 5 percent of income, and on corporations from 4.8 to 7 percent. The total corporate tax rate is 9.5 percent when the personal property replacement tax is included.

Democratic lawmakers sold the tax increase as a stopgap measure needed to straighten out state government’s dire finances and pay down a shameful pile of unpaid bills. But it didn’t work – beside the fact that state spending since then has increased, most of the $31 billion the new tax rate is predicted to generate has been swallowed by the state’s ballooning public pension obligations.

The increase is supposed to sunset Jan. 1 to 3.75 percent for individuals and from 7 percent to 5.25 percent for businesses. But Quinn asked lawmakers in March to make the increase permanent, lest the state suffer draconian cuts that would hurt children and the state’s neediest residents.

State Rep. Barbara Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake, said it would not surprise her if Madigan and other Democratic leaders attempt a “compromise” tax rate between 3.75 and 5 percent, meaning they would preserve some of the increase’s windfall while being able to tell voters in an election year that their taxes will go down.

“This isn’t about good public policy. It’s all about politics, and it’s very embarrassing,” Wheeler said.

McSweeney and Franks said lawmakers could end up forwarding the budget plan it already approved to the Senate and then to Quinn, and leave cuts up to him and his amendatory veto. Neither support the idea – Franks said the General Assembly would be abrogating its job, and McSweeney echoed GOP concerns that any budget counting on revenue that doesn’t yet exist violates the oft-disregarded balanced budget requirement of the Illinois Constitution.

Or lawmakers could do what they did when they approved the tax rate and do it after the election.

The three-fifths majority needed to pass legislation resets to simple majority Jan. 1, meaning Democratic lawmakers would have a small window of opportunity in the lame-duck session before the swearing in of the new General Assembly. Incumbents who won re-election would be safe to vote to keep the tax increase, and those who lost may be more easily persuaded to approve it because they have nothing politically to lose.

The 67 percent tax increase was approved in the final hours of session in January 2011 with the bare minimum of votes needed. Six of the 12 outgoing lawmakers who voted yes, including two who campaigned against the tax hike during their unsuccessful re-election bids, later ended up with high-paying government jobs.

Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, said he would like to believe that Democrats won’t again raise taxes after the election when they are no longer accountable to voters. He called the ongoing budget process “the weirdest I’ve ever seen.”

“Madigan’s gone on record that [a lame-duck tax vote] is bad public policy and he does not support that. But if he can’t get the tax increase, who knows what we’re going to see?” Tryon said.