It’s crunch time for a Sears incentive plan

SPRINGFIELD — With top Sears Holdings Corp. executives saying they’ll decide whether to leave Hoffman Estates by the end of the year and state lawmakers scheduled to meet just three more days in 2011, the pressure is on to craft a compromise this week to keep the 125-year-old Chicago-area retail institution in Illinois.

Lawmakers will try to mold terms that would provide tax incentives to keep the company from moving out of state while still finding a way to distribute more money to Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300, whose parents, officials and even students have protested tax breaks for Sears that limit school revenue.

But time to meet Sears’ self-imposed deadline is fading fast. Lawmakers return to Springfield Nov. 8 and recess for the year on Nov. 10, leaving a little more than a week to craft a compromise proposal and then three days to get legislative approval.

“If I’m them, that’s what the end of the year means to me,” said state Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat who’s among the lawmakers trying to broker a deal.

Sears says it’s weighing offers to move to several other states.

Crespo and Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat, say they intend to merge suggestions from Sears, District 300 and Hoffman Estates into a proposal that’s palatable to them all. Republican Sens. Matt Murphy of Palatine and Pam Althoff of Crystal Lake are the GOP lawmakers working closest to the issue.

“Everybody’s going to get something out of this,” Kotowski said. “I’m confident.”

Without giving away many details, Kotowski laid out what he calls a “framework” for an eventual agreement.

First, Sears’ 20-year-old tax deal with Hoffman Estates would be extended so the company could recover some of the millions it says it has spent on roads and bridges in the area. Whether Sears would have to give up any of the $125 million in total tax benefits it’s seeking is unclear as the company keeps some of the details of its proposal secret.

Then, Sears would be penalized if it left for another state while the deal was still in effect.

And finally, more money would be sent to District 300. How much is still unclear, as money the school district would get might have to come at the expense of other local governments or Sears.

“We had very productive meetings in Springfield this week, and we are encouraged by the progress thus far,” Sears spokesman Chris Braithwaite said in a statement. “We appreciate the efforts of Sens. Kotowski and Murphy and Rep. Crespo on behalf of Sears, its employees and other members of the community to find a solution that keeps jobs in Illinois, further benefiting schools, public safety agencies and local governments.”

District 300 has been the most vocal opponent of Sears getting its current tax deal extended, mixing months of sharp rhetoric with a protest at the Capitol last Monday.

“I think it went very well on our part because we are truly alone in this battle,” Superintendent Michael Bregy said Friday. “It is very clear to us that Sears and Hoffman Estates are working very closely together. When you have a corporate giant and powerful village working together, we’re the odd man out, and that’s very difficult for us.”

The school district argues that if Sears’ deal expired, schools would get $14 million in new money a year.

Bregy says district officials will “change tactics” when it comes to their Springfield presence when lawmakers meet next.

Though those three days in November represent the apparent deadline to get legislation done, deadlines in Springfield sometimes can be pliable. But with thousands of Sears jobs at stake, some lawmakers are likely to be unwilling to wait.

Sen. Michael Noland, an Elgin Democrat and ally of District 300, takes the opposite view. He suggested lawmakers should wait until the end of the year and see what other states offer Sears.

“Why shouldn’t we wait and see what Texas and Ohio are offering Sears and see if we can better the offers?” Noland said.

But it’s clear Kotowski and Crespo want to go forward.

Even if they come up with legislation that satisfies Sears, District 300 and Hoffman Estates, the Democrats need to find votes under the Capitol dome in Springfield. And there’s likely to be at least some opposition.

Opponents to company-specific tax breaks say the government is using its power to pick corporate winners and losers.

Gov. Pat Quinn would have to sign off, too. Part of what Sears wants is tax credits tied to creating jobs. Quinn has made handing out those kinds of credits to companies threatening to leave Illinois — Navistar in Warrenville and Motorola Mobility in Libertyville, for example — one of his biggest talking points.

But Quinn spokeswoman Annie Thompson wouldn’t shed light on Quinn’s thoughts about the rest of the Sears talks.

“Our discussions with Sears are ongoing,” she said.

But probably not for much longer, as deadlines near.

“Timing is critical,” Crespo said. “In business, time is money.”

Ÿ Daily Herald staff writer Larissa Chinwah contributed to this report.

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