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State lawmakers begin budget talks as progressive tax debate continues

Illinois Watchdog.Org

Wednesday, April 3, 2019  |  Article  |  By Greg Bishop | Illinois News Network

Legislators from both sides of the aisle are sitting down to begin hashing out details of the state budget with less than two months before the end of spring legislative session and the May 31 deadline to pass a budget with simple majorities.

House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, said Monday that Democrats and Republicans would work together.

“Going through every line of the budget together in a bipartisan way to decide what we spend and where we spend it,” Harris said. “So it’s a collaborative effort.”

House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said the state needs a balanced budget.

“The governor indicated he had a $1.2 billion increase in spending, from my perspective and also my members that’s a non-starter,” Durkin said. “Live within our means. We’re willing to work with them on a bipartisan basis to have a responsible balanced budget but one that is really balanced. Not one that is balanced based on smoke and mirrors and on conditions down the road.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s budget relies on new revenue streams from gambling expansion, cannabis legalization and even a plastic bag tax, all of which have yet to materialize.

Durkin said Republicans will continue to push for changes to grow the economy.

“That’s always needed,” Durkin said. “Whether it’s our public pensions or improving our business climate. You just can’t ask families and business for more money and we’re seeing that with their constitutional amendment [for a progressive tax] but business reforms are important. If the governor comes from a business background, he should understand you can’t have a target on the businesses’ back if you want Illinois to be a state to do business in.”

Harris said bills will be considered.

“We have some bills in the chamber now, we’ll go through them and we’ll vote on each one,” Harris said.

The budget talks come as the debate over changing the state’s flat income tax to a progressive one continues. A progressive income tax would have higher rates for higher earners.

State Sen. Don Harmon, Oak Park, has introduced a constitutional amendment to ask voters for a change in how Illinois taxes income. He said he wants it to be approved before the end of Spring session. Democrats last week said the change will help bring in more revenue to stabilize the state's finances.

State Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, on Monday rattled off a list of quotes from leading Democrats from over the years saying that tax increases would help stabilize budgets.

“The is a comprehensive package that will move us a long way toward driving down our spending, paying our past due bills, and achieving fiscal stability,” Batnick quoted former state Rep. Elaine Nekritz saying in 2011.

“We are in desperate need to improve our bond ratings. We will do that by raising this…” Batinick quoted Senate President John Cullerton from 2011.

“So, I think what we have before us is a revenue increase essential, if we want to fix the problems of our structural deficit and pay back the bills we owe the people who are providing service to our clients and at the same time, not only have we already saved a lot of money through programs like pension reform, we will hold spending in line,” Batinick quoted former House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie in 2011.

In the final days of legislative session in January 2011, lawmakers passed a temporary income tax increase that expired in 2015.

“It creates revenue, and along with the spending package, there will be several hundred million dollars that would be a surplus that could be used in a number of ways to pay down the pension,” Batinick quoted state Rep. Greg Harris from July 2017.

Lawmakers in July 2017 overrode then-Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of a permanent income tax increase.

Batinick said despite repeated promises from Democrats that tax increases would help Illinois’ budget, the state’s finances are still out of balance. Republicans are calling a progressive tax a “blank check” for government spending.

Harris said the income tax rates will be known.

“Ninety-seven percent of people in Illinois will be paying the same or less than they are now, 2.8 percent of the wealthiest people would be asked to pay their fair share,” Harris said.

Batinick said that’s a bad political game Democrats are playing.

“‘Don’t worry about everybody in this room, I’m going to fix the problem by taxing somebody that’s in that other room over there. If you keep me in office, you’re going to be OK with that,’” Batinick said, characterizing Democrats’ position. “It makes it easier for them to engage in class warfare.”

Even if approved by voters in November 2020, a change to the state’s flat tax wouldn’t impact state budgets until future years.