SPRINGFIELD -- With just three weeks before state lawmakers' deadline for approving a budget, most suburban Democrats are still on the fence about whether to vote to renew a temporary state income tax hike or allow it to roll back as scheduled.
Allowing the tax rate to drop means much less revenue for state programs, but voting for the higher tax rate is risky for lawmakers who face a November election. The leader of one political action committee already is promising to work against any lawmaker who votes for keeping the higher tax rate.
Moving some Democratic "undecideds" into the "yes" column would be crucial for passing an extension of the tax hike.
State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, said she wants to see details before committing.
"I've yet to see what's in the final package in that regard," Nekritz said. "I'm not prepared to commit until I know what's in that final package."
State Rep. Kathleen Willis is "totally on the fence."
"I'm totally undecided still. I'm talking to the people in my district to see," the Addison Democrat said.
State Rep. Michelle Mussman hasn't made up her mind either but was mindful of the effects of more state spending cuts.
"I know people feel strongly about wanting that tax to roll back, but we also don't want to do more harm," the Schaumburg Democrat said.
The state's 5 percent income tax is set to roll back to 3.75 percent on Jan. 1. Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed extending it, arguing "savage cuts" would be needed otherwise.
Republicans and some Democrats say the tax hike was billed as temporary and should be left that way.
"I was against the original temporary tax increase. I said at the time it wouldn't be temporary; it would be permanent," said Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks of Marengo.
"I'm a 'hell no' on this one," he said.
State Rep. Carol Sente of Vernon Hills is another strong Democratic voice of opposition.
"I was a firm 'no' in 2011, and I continue to be a firm 'no' on making the temporary income tax permanent. What we really need is bipartisan, long-term economic development plans and major budget reform," said Sente, who has outlined such plans in a proposal that's been stagnant in the legislature since March.
But three weeks can be an eternity in Springfield, with plenty of time for building coalitions and changing minds. Democrats' decisions are key as Republicans aren't likely to add much support, if any, to renewing the 5 percent tax rate.
After gaining a historic majority in the 2012 election, Illinois Democrats have targets on their backs this November, and how they vote on the income tax rate could be a weak spot for GOP challengers to try to exploit.
Americans for Prosperity has already started running campaigns against Mussman, Democratic state Rep. Fred Crespo of Hoffman Estates and others, leaving little room for Republicans to come across the aisle on an income tax issue.
Likewise, conservative talk show host and former Republican candidate for governor Dan Proft threatened Thursday to stand against any Republican who backs renewing the 5 percent rate.
"We will also take an interest in the political future of any Republicans who would aid and abet defrauding Illinois taxpayers," Proft said.
Proft said in a statement that his Liberty Principles PAC has more than $1 million in its campaign account and is willing to spend it on Democrats in the general election.
Some Democratic lawmakers in intense re-election bids, like state Reps. Deborah Conroy of Villa Park and Marty Moylan of Des Plaines, have come out against extending the tax increase.
"A promise is a promise, and I believe that it should sunset," Conroy said.
Though Moylan said he is a "no" vote for now, it's possible his mind could change.
"Right now I'm leaning 'no' unless there's some major reason or change of my mind on it," Moylan said.
Getting enough votes will mean persuading people on the fence to support a tax increase or convincing opponents to change their minds. Those undecided might be swayed by other actions that are important to them.
For example, state Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat, said he'd like to see a bill allowing more gambling pass the legislature before he would consider an income tax extension.
"I've been a sponsor of gaming for a long time, so I want to see if we can get that moving because that would generate a lot of revenue for the state of Illinois," Link said.
In his budget address, Quinn said he wants to couple the income tax extension with $500 checks for homeowners that would replace tax credits they already get for the property taxes they pay.
State Sen. Mike Noland, an Elgin Democrat, said he would sign on to extend the current income tax rate only if property tax relief is included in the plan.
"My understanding of the governor's proposal is to provide $500 in property tax relief at the same time we continue the current revenue stream," Noland said.
In the House, Democrats control 71 votes and need 60 to approve a tax extension. The smaller Senate has 40 Democrats out of 59 lawmakers, giving Democrats 10 votes to spare.