Governor makes his case
Gov. Pat Quinn last week made it much easier for voters to decide if they wish to retain him for another term.
While delivering his budget address in Springfield last week, Democratic Gov. Quinn did far more than lay out the details of his proposed $38.6 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 — he clarified the differences in the fall election between his vision for Illinois and that of his Republican opponent, Bruce Rauner.
Quinn's budget embraces the status quo — more spending and more taxes to support the kind of government programs he holds dear. While not releasing a budget plan of his own, the GOP's Rauner has pledged to pursue a new path for the state, one that does not rely so heavily on tax increases, that re-examines budget priorities and focuses on the need to re-energize the private sector in a way that creates jobs and, ultimately in that way, increases the tax receipts on which government depends.
Quinn deserves credit for staking out his ground. For months, he's been bobbing and weaving on the issue of whether he supports making permanent the state's temporary 5 percent personal income tax. Now he says that making the rate permanent — not allowing it to fall back to 3.75 percent on Jan. 1, 2015 — "protects everyday families and invests in their futures" and is necessary to avoid staggering cuts in core services.
Of course, Quinn is incapable of delivering a political address without his usual sleight of hand. While maintaining that the temporary tax hike must be made permanent, he proposed tax cuts and more spending for favored constituencies — doubling the state's earned income tax credit, providing another $50 million in grants for college students and proposing a $500 annual property tax rebate for homeowners. Quinn also expressed opposition to broadening the state's sales tax on services because "it hurts working families the most," ignoring the reality that it is "working families" who provide most of the increased revenue generated by the state's higher income tax rates.
Quinn once again reminded his legislative audience that he inherited a horrendous budget situation from his predecessor, the corrupt Rod Blagojevich, his two-time running-mate, when he took office in 2009. Quinn was correct in his description of the disastrous circumstances he faced, but not quite correct when he said that "Illinois is in a much stronger financial position than it was five years ago."
If Illinois is better off, it's only marginally so. The state remains deeply in debt, faces sagging credit ratings and serious public pension spending woes. All that's kept the state afloat is the surging revenue generated by the 67 percent state income tax increase passed by Quinn and a lame-duck legislature in January 2011.
That tax hike remains a burr under the saddle of many Illinoisans because of the deep dishonesty surrounding its passage. The tax rate was increased from 3 percent to 5 percent, with the promise that the 5 percent rate would be allowed to fall back to 3.75 percent in 2015. Legislators swore the additional revenues generated would be used to pay off old bills and restore the state to fiscal health.
But Illinois still has a multibillion-dollar backlog of old bills, its financial health is poor and the plan is to make the temporary tax increase permanent. That's a hat trick of deceit.
But Quinn's support for making the temporary income tax permanent won instant support from two key Chicago Democrats, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton. Madigan was so enthused by Quinn's speech that he pledged to do what he can to see that the tax increase is made permanent "before the end of the spring session, which is the end of May." Cullerton promised he will see to it that the Senate passes Quinn's tax plan as soon as the Madigan's House completes action.
If that happens, it would further sharpen the differences between the parties for the fall election. But it's hard to imagine rank-and-file Senate and House Democrats rushing to make the income tax increase permanent six months before the November election. Is Champaign Democratic state Sen. Mike Frerichs, a strong supporter of the 2011 tax hike and a proponent of adopting a progressive tax plan, really going to be happy about passing Quinn's tax plan in the middle of his campaign for state treasurer?
Most legislators prefer to pass these controversial proposals in post-election lame-duck sessions, when they are beyond the voters' reach.
Still, Quinn has made his bed and is happily lying in it. It's a forthright position. Cullerton, Madigan and many Democrats say they want to join him. The question is whether voters will be as excited about that prospect when they go to the polls in November or will opt instead to join's Rauner's promised assault on the status quo.