SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) – A drive to raise Illinois taxes dramatically was stuck in “park” Sunday as Democratic leaders came and went without comment and legislators waited for hours.
Gov. Pat Quinn met Sunday afternoon with the Illinois Senate president and House speaker to strategize on their efforts to raise income taxes and sales taxes. All three left through back exits after the meeting rather than answer questions.
Quinn, cornered by reporters as he tried to leave the Capitol through a basement exit, would say only that he’s “working hard” to pass a plan that will rescue state government from its paralyzing financial crisis.
A House session scheduled for mid-afternoon was delayed for hours, then ended quickly after representatives voted to end free mass-transit rides for senior citizens.
Lawmakers will be back to work Monday, but with some of their time and attention devoted to the inauguration of Quinn and other statewide officials.
Rep. Joseph Lyons, a Chicago Democrat and a member of House Speaker Michael Madigan’s leadership team, called the tax issue a “potential career-ending vote.”
“Are the political will and votes there to do it or not? At this stage, I don’t know the answer,” he said.
Democrats are considering a plan to boost the 3 percent income tax rate to 5.25 percent for four years, a 75 percent increase. They’re also looking at a dollar-a-pack increase in cigarette taxes, more than double the current rate.
Together, the increases would produce about $7.5 billion a year, backers say. The money would be used in several ways: to close the gap between annual government costs and revenues, to provide money for education and property tax relief, and to finance borrowing about $8 billion to pay off the state’s backlog of overdue bills.
After four years, the income tax rate would drop, although not all the way back to current levels. With officials still negotiating, it was unclear how much the rate would drop.
Supporters of the tax increase argue it must be part of the solution to a budget deficit that could hit $15 billion this year. The deficit is so large that the government is borrowing money to make its annual contribution to retirement systems and is months behind in paying bills.
Democratic leaders want to pass something before the current General Assembly formally ends Wednesday at noon. After that, they lose some of their Democratic majority as well as “lame duck” legislators who might be persuaded to support a tax increase as they leave office.
“Time is running short,” said Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie, another member of House leadership.
Dan Rutherford, a Republican who will be sworn in as Illinois treasurer Monday, objected to Democrats trying to pass a tax increase during the lame duck session. He predicted “a tremendous backlash from the public” if it happens.
Rep. Frank Mautino of Spring Valley, a budget specialist for House Democrats, said lawmakers have multiple worries about the tax proposal.
Some object that it would push Illinois’ business tax rate to the highest in the country, he said. Others want firm limits on government spending, while others see a need for more property tax relief. Those differences make it tricky to negotiate a plan that can pass, even with Madigan pressing his members to support it.
“There’s no one person that can magically make this vote go on its own,” Mautino said. “The decision on the tax itself is personal, and it’s regional. The suburban people need property tax relief. The downstate guys are concerned with spending.”
State officials held a series of receptions Sunday. More events were planned for Monday afternoon, after the inauguration ceremony at a Springfield convention center.
State police said they don’t plan any significant changes to security after the Arizona shooting spree in which a member of Congress was critically wounded. But the department said some officers would be added in public areas to serve as a visible deterrent to anyone thinking of causing trouble.
The House voted 95-15 to end a perk that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich granted to all senior citizens, regardless of income: free rides on public transportation across the state.
Transit systems complain that the free service costs them tens of millions of dollars at a time when they’re cutting service and jobs. The House bill would limit the free service to poor senior citizens, starting six months after the measure became law.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.