Quinn: Budget Requires “Shared Sacrifice”

Governor's budget plan includes tax, fee hike

Facing an unprecedented financial crisis, Gov. Pat Quinn proposes a budget that asks for "shared sacrifice" from a long list of Illinoisans: state employees, smokers, drivers and everyday taxpayers.

"To be direct and honest: our state is facing its greatest crisis of modern times," Quinn told lawmakers in formally presenting his budget Wednesday.   The governor in his first budget address received a warm reception and was interrupted by applause more than 15 times, a far different response than in recent memory. 

 Read: Gov. Quinn's complete budget address 

He tried to soften the blow by expanding a tax break that mostly benefits the poor and middle class, arguing millions of families would end up paying less under his proposal. Quinn also wants a sales tax "holiday" to help parents pay for back-to-school supplies.

Quinn asked lawmakers to support a $26 billion construction program that would build new roads, bridges and schools around the state, supporting some 340,000 jobs. Paying for the massive initiative would mean raising the fees for driver's licenses, license plates and title transfers.

Quinn also wants smokers to pay more. He proposed increasing the tax on cigarettes, now 98 cents a pack, by an additional $1 over two years.

The governor knew he was asking a lot of lawmakers heading into an election year, telling those who offered a warm welcome as he took the podium: "I hope you're applauding at the end of this speech."

Quinn also clearly hoped to remind lawmakers -- and voters -- of the good will he has built up before and since his predecessor, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was kicked out of office over corruption allegations.

"As we prepare for a better future, we must also make tough choices about cleaning up government right now," Quinn said during his Wednesday address. "Ethics reform is of paramount importance to me and the people of Illinois."

Quinn's budget plan is bound to trigger a battle with AFSCME, the influential union that represents state employees. He wants state employees to pay more for health care, take four unpaid furlough days and accept reduced retirement benefits in the future.

With an $11.5 billion deficit to erase, Quinn's budget contains few bright spots.

There's no money to reopen historic sites closed by his predecessor. Mental health grants would drop by $12 million. Spending on senior citizens and disabled people will be held flat.

"This gap is too large to be addressed with any single measure whether it is spending cuts, revenue increases or federal recovery money," Quinn said in a letter to lawmakers.

Quinn inherited the budget mess following Blagojevich's ouster in January. He was suddenly scrambling to respond to a budget deficit that, driven by plunging tax revenues and increasing demand for services, seemed to be growing by the week -- from an estimated $7 billion to $9 billion to $11.5 billion.

His budget proposal showed signs of the rush. The official letter accompanying it talks about a construction program of just $26 -- leaving out the all-important word "billion."

The Chicago Democrat portrayed his budget as an alternative to Blagojevich's "show-biz" approach.

But his budget proposal depends on cutting some corners.

It would lower this year's contributions to pension systems by nearly $2.9 billion on the assumption that Illinois will save billions of dollars in coming decades by cutting retirement benefits for new state employees.

He also calls for dipping into special-purpose funds to pay for general expenses, keeping tax money that would otherwise go to local government and diverting money from the state road fund to help support the construction program.

That long-awaited construction plan also would be funded by raising the cost of license plates by $20, to $99, and doubling the $10 fee for a driver's license. Mass transit construction would get a boost from an increase in the vehicle transfer fee.

By one of the many ways to measure the state budget, Quinn's proposal would push spending to $52.9 billion in the fiscal year beginning July 1. That's up $2.1 billion, or about 4.1 percent.

Much of the increase comes from federal stimulus money the state will receive for education and Medicaid.

The governor has a tough sales job ahead of him. Many lawmakers are open to tax increases but only if they can show constituents how they will benefit.

Quinn is trying to demonstrate benefits by focusing on the increased exemption -- the amount of a family's income that is exempt from taxes. By tripling it to $6,000 per person, Quinn argues many families would benefit from his plan.

Any family of four making less than $60,900 a year would end up with a smaller tax bill, he says. But other taxpayers face a different picture. A single person making $60,900 would pay $630 more. A two-person household -- say, a single mother and her child -- would pay $420 more.

Republicans are generally opposed to an income-tax increase or a hike in the corporate tax.

Revenue from higher taxes will fall short of projections because people will change habits to shield income, said Rep. Mark Beaubien, R-Barrington Hills. Taxing businesses in this economy, he said, would be devastating.

"People won't expand their businesses, they'll leave the state," Beaubien said.

Quinn proposes raising the corporate income tax rate to 7.2 percent, generating $350 million. He also wants to end about $100 million in corporate tax breaks, a proposal that has often been rejected in the past.

"There's something wrong when our state gives more tax breaks to those who raise thoroughbred horses than it gives to parents raising children," Quinn said during his budget address.

A sales tax holiday would ease the burden on families. Quinn wants to lift the 5 percent sales tax for 10 days in August on certain school-related items. That would cost as much as $50 million, an amount made up by letting retailers keep less of their service fee for collecting the tax.

The administration estimates its income tax increase would bring the state an additional $2.8 billion.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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