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Budget Fight Moves From Taxes To Spending — For Now

Gov. Pat Quinn
Brian Mackey/WUIS

Democrats in the Illinois House on Wednesday handed a significant defeat to Governor Pat Quinn. Fewer than half are willing to go along with his push to extend a higher income tax rate. That could mean significant cuts in state spending. Brian Mackey reports on how Democrats backed themselves into this corner, and where they go from here.

Quinn has for two months been asking lawmakers to make 2011’s temporary income tax hike permanent.

The current individual income tax rate of 5 percent is scheduled to roll back to 3.75 percent at the end of the year. That’s expected to leave a canyon-sized hole in the budget.

Republicans have gone all out against extending the tax. But Quinn’s real problem is that a good number of House Democrats have, too.

It was worrisome enough that Quinn went to a closed-door meeting of House Democrats on Monday, spending more than two-and-a-half hours making a direct appeal for support.

Then he and House Speaker Michael Madigan say they spent the next two days meeting with Democratic lawmakers.

On Wednesday afternoon, Democrats went behind closed doors again to talk taxes. This meeting was a lot shorter.

Credit Amanda Vinicky/WUIS
House Speaker Michael Madigan

“We took a vote in the House Democratic caucus," Madigan says. "There were 34 members of the caucus voting yes. There were a little over 30 voting no."

60 is what's needed. And there’s one other number worth noting: at least 40 House Democrats were said to be willing to vote for a tax extension on Monday before Quinn’s meeting.

The speaker says he’s sending his top people back to the drawing board on a state spending plan. In this scenario, Illinois will have several billion dollars less to spend. In other words: the doomsday budget Democrats have been warning about. All spring, officials have been painting a dire scenario: 13,000 teachers laid off, 11 prisons closed, state police let go.

So, given that, and given Madigan's and Quinn's support for a tax extension, why did only 34 Democrats go along?

"Well obviously it's a very difficult vote," Madigan says. "It's coming at a difficult time."

Put another way: it’s an election year.

Republicans are already using the issue against Democrats. The party’s candidate for governor, Bruce Rauner, is spending some of his considerable wealth to fund automated telephone calls to voters in at least 11 Democratic districts.

“There’s still time to help me fight Pat Quinn's tax increase, and to let state Rep. Deb Conroy know you want her to protect you from higher income taxes," Rauner says in a recorded message.

Rep. Deb Conroy is a freshman Democrat from Villa Park. She says she campaigned on letting the 2011 tax hike expire, and regardless of Rauner’s robo-call, was already a "solid no” on the tax extension. And yet she acknowledges it's a tough position to be in.

“Do we want to cut all these things and devastate all these services?" Conroy asks. "No, we don’t. But this is where we’re at right now.”

Conroy says part of the problem for people like her is that voters hear about the potential tax extension, but not why Quinn wants to keep the tax rate at 5 percent.

“All they understand is that you’re going to increase our taxes," Conroy says.

So with House Democrats beginning to move a leaner spending plan, does this mean the tax extension is dead? Speaker Madigan says not necessarily.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to continue to work for the governor’s proposal," Madigan says.

In fact, the next best chance for the governor’s tax extension could be the budget proposals that emerge in the coming days. If spending is in fact slashed, and education, prisons, and other state services have to be significantly cut, perhaps anti-tax Democrats would be prompted to re-evaluate their positions.

Madigan acknowledges this possibility, and so does Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson: “This is a tough vote. Members are going to have to make a choice: do they want to vote on a budget that slashes social services, and cuts education, and lays off teachers?"

Presumably, few lawmakers want “stuck it to nursing homes and fired teachers” on their resume. That’s because proclaiming you’re a fiscal conservative and actually voting like one are not the same thing.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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