The promise that Illinois' largest income tax increase in history would be rolled back next year has become its thinnest since being delivered nearly four years ago. Even then many believed the 5 percent tax would be here to stay.
But as we learned from Gov. Pat Quinn's budget proposal on Wednesday, the way he wants to rescue Illinois' economy from drowning is to keep the revenue taps flowing freely.
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The stakes were exceptionally high as the governor outlined his plan at the state Capitol. No doubt that's the reason he postponed the speech until after the primary election and kept the details from the public (and presumably his opponent) beforehand. It's clear that Quinn isn't concerned that campaigning for office with a tax increase -- or in this case, with extending the temporary tax hike -- could keep him out of the governor's office. It didn't the first time. And now he's laid out his cards; he wants the tax to continue.
His effort to make that easier to digest by proposing a $500 tax credit for homeowners is an intriguing twist, though how far such a bonus goes toward tax relief in the suburbs is dubious. In fact, because the credit would replace the current 5 percent credit, those who pay $5,000 a year in property taxes -- not uncommon in the suburbs -- would reap only a $250 benefit, and anyone who pays over $10,000 would see no additional relief at all, as State Government Editor Mike Riopell's report shows. Quinn deserves credit for trying to address the school funding problem and soaring property taxes, but there's no fairness in making a balanced state budget a suburban responsibility.
The larger issue here is credibility of government. The promises that revenue from the 2011 income and business tax increases would pay down the state's mounting bills now ring hollow.
The governor points to cuts he's made in state spending but insists there's very little room for further reductions in services. He simply won't budge on his opposition to what he calls "savage cuts" in education and programs for seniors and veterans, and taxes on services and retirement income are off the table -- two proposals that weren't likely to happen anyway.
Doomsday predictions aside, a permanent 5 percent income tax wouldn't melt away the state's financial problems like a spring thaw. Illinois' crisis continues to be more than a problem of revenue; leaders just haven't done their share of shoveling. Any permanent increase or change in tax structure must be part of a comprehensive package that includes real reductions in spending and wasteful and inefficient practices, and we are still waiting for that to happen.
Quinn sees the state as already on the road to recovery and believes that a loss of funds from a tax rollback would send it skidding down the embankment. Whether his budget plan is realistic and sustainable, and would nurture the comeback it promises, is one issue to be determined, but it's not the only issue. How can we believe him now?
That Quinn recognizes the need to make hard choices is commendable, but he -- as well as state lawmakers as they craft and finalize a 2015 budget -- must do the harder things first. It's a matter of trust in government.