By John O’Connor
SPRINGFIELD – Illinois senators still grappling with the sticker shock of a tax increase weighed it and other far-reaching changes Wednesday that some leaders say are critical to ending the longest budget drought in any state since World War II.
While the Senate prepared an afternoon showdown on a bipartisan package of legislation designed to bust open the two-year gridlock, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner offered some words of encouragement during his State of State address in front of a joint session of the General Assembly.
Later Wednesday, the Senate was set to attempt a floor vote for package of 13 bills negotiated by Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont. It raises revenue lawmakers believe is necessary to draw down a multibillion-dollar deficit while address pro-business and cost-saving workers’ compensation changes demanded by Rauner.
“It’s heartening to see the Senate coming together on a bipartisan basis to acknowledge these changes are needed,” Rauner said, then, going off script, “Please don’t give up. Please keep working. The people of Illinois need you to succeed.”
The stalemate began shortly after Rauner took office in 2015. He won’t talk about how to tackle a multibillion-dollar deficit until Democrats consider business- and political-climate changes he says will boost the economy and restore voter confidence. Democrats have said the state should raise taxes and cut spending to get the deficit under control before addressing “non-budget” issues.
The Senate plan, notably, would increase the personal income tax 33 percent, from 3.75 percent to 4.99 percent. It would create a 5 percent excise tax on some services such as car repair and laundry.
But it also includes legislation to answer Rauner’s concerns. They include a two-year freeze on local property taxes, cost-cutting restrictions on payouts for workers’ compensation claims, streamlined state purchasing and an avenue for voters to eliminate unnecessary local governments.
In a Democratic response to the governor’s speech, House Deputy Majority Leader Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, laid the financial suffering squarely at Rauner’s feet.
“There are people across our state, including our most fragile citizens, whose lives are forever impacted because of the lack of a budget,” Lang said. “If we have a repeat of the past two years there will be more people permanently harmed all across Illinois. We can all agree this should not be allowed to happen.”
He said House Democrats would push an economic plan that cuts corporate income taxes while insuring all businesses pay some taxes, raising the minimum wage and ensuring other protections for middle class families, and reviving House Speaker Michael Madigan’s idea of a surcharge tax on incomes over $1 million.
The Senate plan goes beyond spending for immediate government operations. It goes so far as to take on years-old problems facing the Prairie State — how to erase a $130 billion gap in what’s needed to cover current and future retirees’ pensions and a fairer way to fund public schools, although that bill doesn’t have any explanatory language yet.
Cullerton and Radogno had hoped to strike fast, putting the Senate on record with a plan to bash the logjam early this month. When Republican senators balked, Radogno promised a vote before month’s end. Skepticism about that timetable arose Tuesday when skittish lawmakers backed off taking a stand after public committee testimony.