Twenty years ago a freshman Republican state senator cast a vote that killed a plan to cut property taxes. She went on to become the first woman to hold a caucus leadership position in the Illinois Legislature, even though property taxes skyrocketed during her years in office.
Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, retired from the Illinois Senate last week and was hailed by liberals and conservatives for her courage in hammering out a “grand bargain” with Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, designed to end the state’s budget stalemate.
I smiled at all the praise lavished on her because I was in Springfield in 1997 when she cast the deciding vote that destroyed Republican Gov. Jim Edgar’s bid to reform school funding and the property tax system.
That bit of history is long forgotten, but I’m going to remind people because it may well be a key reason Illinois is in such sorry financial shape today.
In 1994, Dawn Clark Netsch won the Democratic primary for governor and called for a major change in the way Illinois funded its schools.
As a member of the 1970 Constitutional Convention, Netsch was outraged that despite language that gave the state the “primary responsibility” for funding public education it had never funded even half of the cost, forcing school districts to increasingly rely on local property taxes for revenue.
She wanted to increase income taxes on both individuals and corporations to increase state school funding and thus lower property taxes.
Edgar effectively hammered Netsch in campaign commercials for planning the largest income tax hike in state history.
After winning re-election, Edgar essentially acknowledged that Netsch was right. Property taxes were out of control. State school funding was inadequate. So in 1997 he proposed a tax swap, higher income taxes in exchange for property tax relief.
Edgar said he was not being hypocritical because Netsch’s plan had never guaranteed property tax relief to the business community and his plan would.
With Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, Edgar felt confident his initiative would pass. And it flew through the House with support from Democratic minority leader Michael Madigan.
Edgar was so convinced of victory in the Senate that he invited a bunch of reporters to his office to announce his landmark achievement when the measure came out of committee. I was there.
Edgar, normally an even-tempered fellow, was fuming when he met the news media that day. Republican Senate President James “Pate” Philip, who had given him his word that the property tax swap would pass, had betrayed him.
A freshman Republican senator named Christine Radogno had cast the deciding vote killing the legislation. Radogno would give me several different reasons for her vote over the years, but it seemed obvious then and now that no freshman senator would have gone against the will of the governor from their own party unless she had gotten direction from the Senate president.
Over the next two decades the state’s share of education funding continued to decline to the point that it is now the lowest in the nation at about 26 percent.
Property taxes continued to skyrocket so that they are now the highest in the nation, along with New Jersey.
And the state budget, which has been out of balance for years, is billions of dollars in deficit.
On Sunday, the Illinois House passed an income tax hike, with no guarantee of property tax relief. On Tuesday, the Senate passed the same tax hike. An amazing event since a temporary income tax hike resulted in the election of a Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, in 2014.
Rauner, who wanted a property tax freeze and has publicly ridiculed the state’s inadequate system of school funding, vetoed the tax hike, as well as a full budget approved by the Legislature. The Senate then overrode his vetoes.
Twenty years. The problem has gotten worse. The solutions remain the same. And the politicians continue to lie.