Aldermen enforce five-year sunset clause promised to voters

Aldermen Carl Wasco (D-4) and Doug Mark (R-3) co-sponsored a resolution guaranteeing a five-year sunset clause to the 1 percentage point sales tax increase approved by voters April 17. The Rockford City Council unanimously approved the resolution May 21.

Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) and alderman have been working with state legislators since the referendum’s passage to expedite the collection of the additional penny-on-the-dollar tax. Currently, state law dictates the sales tax increase may not start being collected until Jan. 1, 2008.

A bill that would allow the city to begin levying the tax six months earlier awaits the signature of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D). Should the governor sign the bill into law before July 1, Rockford will get its hands on the tax revenues earlier than expected to begin numerous city wide infrastructure improvements.

Although referendum proponents repeatedly promised a five-year sunset clause, the actual wording on the ballot did not limit the tax to only five years, but rather stated an expiration date of Dec. 31, 2012.

The idea of breaking the five-year promise didn’t sit well with some aldermen, including Doug Mark.

“The resolution is trying to be more concise on the five years that was projected, and the one thing that we came to the voters for,” Ald. Mark explained. “I think there was some concern or some question on what the five-year was, and I think we wanted to be specific on that. We wanna be up front and let the voters know what is going on and what direction we’re trying to take so we can be, certainly, conscious of their requests.”

Technically, if Gov. Blagojevich permits the early collection, the tax increase would essentially have a lifespan of five-and-a-half years. After last week’s City Council meeting, when asked if early collection would affect the five-year sunset clause voters were promised, Morrissey responded, “Ultimately, that’s something for a future Council to take up.” The mayor was optimistic voters would approve an extension of the tax before it expires.

Because the tax increase is so closely tied to the city’s five-year Capital Improvements Plan (CIP), Morrissey was asked what the extra six months of revenue, estimated at $8 million, would be used for should the governor approve early collection.

“I wouldn’t call it ‘extra six months of revenue’ because the City Council—whoever’s in office at that time—I think, would have an obligation, and would be out of their mind if they didn’t put the issue out earlier as to whether or not it would be continued,” Morrissey said during his monthly media briefing May 17.

The mayor indicated if early collection gets the nod from Blagojevich, the additional six months of the 1 percentage point tax increase would be applied to a new CIP, assuming voters approve an extension in February 2012.

“If it was voted down and voters didn’t wanna extend it,” Morrissey said, “then I think we’d—at least if it was me—we’d stop collecting. We have to send notice to the Department of Revenue saying, ‘Stop collecting at the end of June [2012],’ so we’d still stay true to the five-year commitment.”

Although Morrissey stated he’d received no phone calls or e-mails from constituents regarding the issue, he hinted, “We may do something at Council, just to try to put it out there so people recognize we’re not trying to play any games.”

Four days later, aldermen did just that by guaranteeing the increase would last exactly five years.

Acknowledging the promise of a five-year tax increase, Morrissey affirmed, “I don’t want it to be an issue that gets anybody upset or interferes with any of the credibility that we’re trying to build, so I don’t have any problem making that commitment.”

Morrissey reminded reporters the governor’s approval of the expedited collection is “a big maybe.”

“This is the problem not having home rule,” Morrissey continued. “A local issue gets sucked into a statewide political issue.”

Many fear Blagojevich is hesitant to sign the bill because he may be politically perceived as favoring a sales tax increase, despite the increase having been approved by referendum.

In part, the resolution reads, “the termination of the tax on June 30, 2012 will allow the Governor of the State of Illinois to sign Senate Bill 1395 without increasing sales taxes on the citizens of the City of Rockford, but merely allow the earlier collection of the already approved tax.”

Asked whether the resolution was likely to increase the chances of Blagojevich signing the bill, Ald. Mark replied: “We’re certainly hoping that. It’s kind of a recommending resolution. We’re hoping that they will certainly listen to that and move forward on the request to help Rockford with their infrastructure.”

Concerns also exist Blagojevich may veto the bill in what some characterize as an effort to impede Morrissey’s projects and his effectiveness as an Independent.

As a former fellow Illinois congressman, Blagojevich is a close associate of Doug Scott (D), whom Morrissey defeated, and he appointed Scott to head the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency after Scott was defeated. Former Rockford Mayor Charles Box (D) was also appointed by Blagojevich to head the Illinois Commerce Commission. Box was Scott’s mentor when Scott served as a city attorney under Box. At that time, as head of Rockford’s first recycling program, Scott was called the “Garbage Czar.”

If Blagojevich signs Senate Bill 1395, Rockford roads and infrastructure will see approximately $8 million in improvements that otherwise are not provided for in 2007. Should the governor allow the tax to start being collected July 1, revenues could be put to work as early as October.

If the tax increase isn’t levied until Jan. 1, as state law currently requires, the revenues will not become available until April 2008, delaying road work and River District revitalization projects.

from May 23-29, 2007, issue

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