Risinger offers view of a week in the Illinois Senate

Staff Writer
Woodford Times

Following a narrow victory in the Nov. 2nd general election, Gov. Pat Quinn has made his first priority an increase in the Illinois income tax.  

State Sen. Dale Risinger (R-Peoria) said other issues like pension reforms for public safety workers, a gambling expansion, new borrowing authority for the Chicago Cubs and a possible vote on civil unions may be also considered in the upcoming veto legislative session.

    In interviews, Quinn said he views his win as a “mandate” from voters to raise the income tax. He is calling for a 33 percent increase, which he says would generate about $3 billion annually to benefit education and provide property tax relief. 

    Risinger said Quinn may have a difficult time persuading lawmakers of both parties that any such mandate exists, given that a majority of votes went to candidates who opposed higher taxes. In most legislative districts outside of Cook County, voters chose the candidate who opposed higher taxes by wide margins.

     Despite Quinn’s tax increase agenda, the outlook is not promising for any tax hikes over the fall veto session. Republicans have consistently opposed tax increases as a solution to the state’s budget hole—which will soon top a $15 billion deficit—and instead urge the state’s Democrat leaders to make cuts, halt program creation and development, and look to reforms as a way to address Illinois’ budget crisis.

    Some lawmakers are pushing a gaming expansion as a way to gin up revenue for infrastructure projects. It’s anticipated that the proposed measure would authorize new casinos, including a Chicago casino, allow riverboat casinos to operate in dry-dock, and allow for the expansion of slot machines at racetracks.

    Though proponents of the gaming expansion say the state could see as much as $1 billion in additional revenue, opponents caution that gaming expansion isn’t viewed as a dependable source of revenue and has negative social consequences.

    A recent report from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) shows that in fiscal year 2010, Illinois’ gaming returns were the lowest in 10 years.  COGFA said the struggling economy, competition from surrounding states and Illinois’ graduated tax structure contributed to the downturn. However, the Commission stated that the “numbers continue to suggest that the biggest contributor to the drop in Illinois casino revenues is the indoor smoking ban.” According to COGFA, since the smoking ban took effect in January 2008, adjusted gross receipts from Illinois riverboats have fallen a combined 28 percent from pre-ban levels.

    State lawmakers will also be looking for some financial relief over the fall veto session through reform of police and firefighters’ pensions. As part of a pension reform measure last spring, the Legislature created a two-tier pension system for some public employees, but those reforms did not extend to police officers and firefighters. 

    The cost of these pensions has gone up dramatically in recent years creating a serious financial burden. On Nov. 2, voters in 44 Illinois communities approved referendums that called for “meaningful public safety pension reform.” Reports show the statewide cost of police pensions increased from around $86 million in 1997 to around $215 million in 2008. Statewide firefighter pension costs went up from about $70 million in 1997 to about $176 million in 2008.

    Legislation has been introduced (HB 5873) that COGFA estimated could save more than $6 billion over time. The measure would increase the retirement age from 50 to 55 with 10 years of service downstate, and increase the retirement age from 50 to 55 with 20 years of service in Chicago. Downstate, the maximum pension would be earned after 30 years of service and in both Chicago and downstate, the final average salary would be calculate based off the highest four years in the last 10 years of work.

    A borrowing plan to finance $200 million in renovations to Chicago’s Wrigley Field has also surfaced. The new owners of the Chicago Cubs baseball team want to use any growth in revenues from an existing amusement tax over the next 35 years to finance the improvements. Existing revenues would continue to go to Chicago and Cook County, but any new revenues would be earmarked for the stadium.

    Top Illinois Democrats, including Quinn and Senate President John Cullerton, have indicated they would like to see a civil-union bill come up for a vote during veto session. Senate Bill 1716 has been introduced to grant new spousal rights to same-sex partners. The bill grants same-sex couples in a civil union the same privileges as heterosexual married couples including decision-making for medical treatment, survivorship, adoptions, and accidental health insurance.