SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Senate on Tuesday inched closer to putting some votes on the board for a “grand bargain” budget plan — all the while making big changes to its revenue bill and trying to quell the concerns over some of the most controversial components of the package.
Senate leaders said they hoped to take some hard votes this week, but it’s clear there’s more ironing of the grand bargain’s 12 bills to be done. Republicans met privately on Monday and Tuesday for several hours, while Democrats spent nearly three hours in caucus on Tuesday in an effort to hammer out details and last-minute changes.
Missing in action is the school funding formula bill, delayed, lawmakers say, because they need more time to study information released by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s school funding commission, which doled out its findings last week.
There is both optimism and concern in the air over the ambitious plan to try to stop the state’s bleeding, which includes pension reform, a temporary property tax freeze and an income tax hike.
“Members still have some trepidation about the impact it’s going to have on them personally, and I think that’s unfounded [in part] and not unfounded to where there won’t be some pushback. But that’s what we do,” state Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, said. “We take hard votes down here, and these are hard times, so it necessitated us doing things that we wouldn’t do in normal circumstances. But I believe the times have pushed us to a point that something has to be done, and this is one of the ways to do it.”
Trotter said there’s been heavy discussion of the plan’s revenue and property tax bills.
Senators are expected to take a structured roll call on at least some of the bills — which would spare some legislators from taking unpopular votes. It would allow senators in safe districts who are likely to be re-elected to take some of the toughest votes.
But state Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, said that shouldn’t be an issue in the voting of the package, at least in the Senate.
“The fact is that they [Republicans] should be able to put 11 votes on almost all of these bills,” Cullerton said. “Everyone on the other side, they’re … in safe districts. They’re not going to hurt themselves by taking any of these votes.”
Cullerton too urged Gov. Bruce Rauner to publicly support the plan. Rauner has encouraged the progress of the Senate leaders, but hasn’t completely put his foot forward into supporting the package, despite it containing many of his preferred reforms.
“If the governor came out and said he was 100 percent behind it and wanted it to pass, he probably could get a lot of people over there and it would be a lot more comfortable.”
State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, said she remained “half glass full” about the plan. Steans said the bipartisan passage of the package will help build pressure to end the impasse.
“I think it puts immediate pressure, enormous pressure on the governor and then the House to take it up,” Steans said.
As for Republican support in the Senate, State Sen. Pam Althoff said there is “great support” to try to come to an agreement. The workers’ compensation bill, she said, is among the most contested in the Republican Senate caucus, with members hoping to “move significantly further,” on the reform.
“I think anything we pass is, again, a beginning. I don’t think it’s necessarily the final product,” said Althoff, R-McHenry. “We’re going to have weigh-in from the governor. We’re going to have weigh-in from the House, but I think we’re committed to having some type of framework to being those discussions.”
Among the largest of proposed changes to the package of 12 bills is a change in the revenue legislation. A service tax on admission to amusement facilities and events is out. And the Business Opportunity Tax — a payroll tax based on the “privilege” of doing business in Illinois — is also no longer in the bill, amid pushback from businesses. A repeal of the corporate income tax has also been excluded.
In its place — with the bill still aiming to generate $6.5 billion in revenue — is the lowering of the sales tax rate but the broadening of the base. The sales tax would be reduced from 6.25 percent to 5.75 percent, but sales taxes will be added for food, drug and medical appliances. Those were previously exempt from the sales tax. And low-income state residents will be exempt from paying those sales taxes.
Previously, an excise tax was added to the existing sales tax structure on things such as repair and maintenance, landscaping, laundry, cable and satellite. The new changes include adding those services to the existing sales tax structure, instead of labeling them excise taxes.