Critical Days in Springfield

Today, we are providing news from the front. PCG staff is spending much of this week in Springfield, where the next few days of the “lame duck” session could be historic for Illinois. We are hopeful that the legislature will pass the first permanent tax increase since 1971, when Richard Ogilvie was governor.

Actual news is difficult to come by. Reports indicate that legislative leaders and the governor are discussing a revenue plan, but so far no details are being released. With very few days left, neither legislators nor advocates are able to guess when a vote will be taken or the specific provisions they will be asked to consider. Given the high stakes, this seems surreal.

Responsible Budget Coalition members are canvassing House members on three questions: “Do you support a restructuring of the state’s debt so we can, at long last, pay service providers?” “Do you support an increase in the state income tax by at least 2 percent?” “Will you oppose a constitutional amendment to restrict spending permanently?” (Or, to put it somewhat differently, “to make it impossible for legislators to make spending decisions, i.e., do their jobs, in the years to come.”)

The reason for the first question is painfully obvious. A survey just completed by Illinois Partners for Human Services, a provider advocacy group, shows that—due to funding cuts and painfully slow reimbursements—agencies which serve children, the elderly, the homeless, and the mentally ill, have already drastically cut programs and staff, increased waiting lines, and—what is truly absurd—are borrowing just to survive. (As one advocate put it, the question should be “will the state borrow from those who want to lend money rather than from the service providers themselves?”)

Legislators in both political parties seem to be more willing now—after the election—to discuss the need for an income tax increase. (Some are even apprehensive that moving from 3 to 5 percent may not be adequate without a simultaneous rise in the sales and corporate taxes.) In addition, a significant number of “lame duck” legislators can vote for the increase without worrying about their political futures. They are either retiring or have been defeated. In short, now is the best opportunity we have seen in years to address the state’s structural financial problems.

Which is what makes the final question about a constitutional amendment to limit spending especially galling. Fiscal experts tell us that this is an ill-advised proposal that will lock in spending at artificially low levels and not adjust sufficiently for population growth and increased costs of providing vital state services in the future. However, some legislators seem to believe that the amendment would provide political cover for a tax increase. But with Illinois acknowledged as the worst state when it comes to unpaid bills, and second-worst (behind California) in pension liability, do our legislators need this kind of political self-protection just to do the right thing? Even more disturbing is the possibility that this maneuver will create problems as great as those the increase is intended to address.

So, please, continue to respond to the Faith in Action Alert and contact your legislators on behalf of an increase in the state income tax. And urge them also to oppose a constitutional amendment limiting state spending. How ironic, how sad, and how harmful it would be if we were to saddle our state with problems equal to those we are—at long last—attempting to solve in these final moments of the 2010 legislative session.

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