Property tax freeze a sticking point in state budget impasse

  • Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner wants a property tax freeze, but called Democrat-led hearings on it "a waste of time."

      Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner wants a property tax freeze, but called Democrat-led hearings on it "a waste of time." Mike Riopell | Staff Photographer

  • Elgin Area School District U-46 CEO Tony Sanders, center, speaks before the Illinois House Tuesday.

      Elgin Area School District U-46 CEO Tony Sanders, center, speaks before the Illinois House Tuesday. Erin Hegarty | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 6/9/2015 6:37 PM

State lawmakers spent all Tuesday afternoon at the Illinois Capitol talking about whether to freeze homeowners' property taxes in hearings arranged by Democrats.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who campaigned with an eye to the suburbs on keeping property taxes in check, called Tuesday's efforts a "waste of time." So it goes in Springfield, where the state is three weeks away from a potential government shutdown and Rauner and the Democratic majority haven't shown much movement toward cutting a deal to avoid one.

 

Democrats have approved a budget plan to start July 1 that they say spends about $3 billion more than the state is set to take in. Rauner says he'd talk about tax hikes to fill that hole if lawmakers approve parts of his agenda including a property tax freeze. Rauner calls local taxes the state's biggest problem.

"Getting a handle on property taxes in Illinois and empowering local voters to control property taxes is one of the most important things that we can possibly do," he said.

Suburban government officials speaking at a rare Senate hearing opposed that, arguing such a move would hamstring their local budgets.

Elgin Area School District U-46 CEO Tony Sanders says a property tax freeze would be "devastating" to the school district. With decisions on a state budget at a standstill, he says it's hard to plan for the next school year.

"I stand before you on June 9, and I don't know how much revenue I get from the state of Illinois," Sanders said.

If lawmakers passed a property freeze now, Sanders says, it's past the deadline for school districts and superintendents to notify teachers they don't have money to pay them for the next year.

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Grayslake Fire Chief John Christian and Executive Director of the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus David Bennett also testified, saying their sections of government would suffer under a property tax freeze.

On the other side, state Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat, tried to win approval for a property tax freeze in the Illinois House, where a similar proposal failed to advance weeks ago. It would, among other things, allow voters to break through the freeze if they thought a local government needed more money.

It was rejected again.

"Don't hide from the monster. It's not going to go away," Franks said to Republicans, urging them to vote for it.

"Folks, this isn't the monster," House Republican Leader Jim Durkin replied. "The monster is the budget you passed last month."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Lawmakers are set to return to the Capitol in a week. On July 1, the state runs out of authority to spend money in most cases. Rauner has proposed a few stopgap measures, including looking at closing up to two youth prisons, possibly including those in St. Charles and Warrenville.

In a news conference, Rauner said Democrats' property tax proposals don't mirror his and don't include key provisions he wants.

"That's a waste of time," he said.

Rauner also wants some changes to state law to help businesses, but Democrats have made a show of rejecting most of those.

Despite that, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan said tax increases to fill in the budget hole would have to be bipartisan.

"It's not reasonable to expect that the Democrats on their own are going to pass a tax increase. That's simply not reasonable," Madigan said. "What is reasonable, functioning in moderation, is if you have Democrats, Republicans and the governor."

Earlier in the day, Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, met with Rauner to talk about property tax issues. Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said he wanted to tell Rauner that a property tax freeze would have to come with some acknowledgment that the move would hurt the state's poorest schools.

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