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Mayor's phone-tax hike passes House, Senate by big margins

SPRINGFIELD—The House and Senate gave quick approval to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s bid to boost the city tax by 56 percent on wirelines, wireless and prepaid cell phones to pay for 911 operations and perhaps even some of the city’s massive pension tab.

The measure passed the Senate 52-4 and the House by an 83-22 vote, with three members voting present. The package now heads to Gov. Pat Quinn, who has not publicly staked out a position on the bill.

Under the plan, the city tax on monthly phone bills would jump from $2.50 to $3.90, making the tax the highest of its kind among any city in the state.

“In Chicago, the money is used for the operations of emergency management control center, which is the 911 center,” said Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, the bill’s chief Senate sponsor. “So the money is used to fund that system exclusively.”

But the legislation contained no stipulation stating how exactly the city would have to spend increased revenues, which could total more than $50 million annually.

The City Council has been looking for a Plan B to stave off the mayor’s plan to hike property taxes by $250 million over five years to bail out the Municipal Employees and Laborers pension funds. The city also faces a $600 million bill next year because state law requires that payment to shore up police and fire pension funds in even worse shape than the other two.

Last year, the city collected $90 million from the surcharge on all three types of phones. At that rate, a 56-percent increase would generate an additional $50.4 million.

The legislation that passed Friday also allowed downstate and suburban communities to devote a larger share of phone tax revenues to their 911 operations, drawing significant support from lawmakers outside Chicago.

Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, a former chairman of the emergency telephone system board in his county, said the value of this is “worth every penny.”

“As we all know, 911 is an important aspect of our lives; It’s something that probably many in this room has used,” Bivins said. “It is up to the city of Chicago whether or not they want to raise the level or not, so that’s something they’ll have to do, but it is very beneficial to the downstate.”

But state Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove and the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, said the vote sounded like another tax increase. He was one of four no votes in the Senate.

“This state has been absolutely runaway crazy expensive for taxpayers,” Oberweis told the Chicago Sun-Times Early & Often politics portal. “I just felt we don’t need one more cost increase.”