Editorial: There's still much more to do on state budget

  • State Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat, walks through the empty floor of the Illinois House before the vote on an income tax increase bill Sunday.

    State Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat, walks through the empty floor of the Illinois House before the vote on an income tax increase bill Sunday. Associated Press

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

For some time, we've railed against the damage Illinois' lawmakers and governor have done to vulnerable low-income and disabled residents, schoolchildren, college students, local creditors and more by failing to approve a state budget since 2014.

For years, we've watched Illinois' reputation dragged down, not only by the facts of being $6 billion in the red with $15 billion in unpaid bills and $130 billion in pension liability, but also by elected leaders campaigning for themselves by denigrating the Land of Lincoln.

Now comes a tax hike proposal that's a hair from passage. Today, the House is expected to vote whether to override Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's veto, as the Senate already has done, and thus increase the personal income tax rate from 3.75 percent to 4.95 percent. Annually, that would cost about $382 more for a single person making $34,000, $822 more for a family of three making $75,000, and $22 more for a retiree with $5,000 in taxable earnings in addition to non-taxed retirement benefits.

We have opposed a higher income tax before, including in 2011 when it temporarily went up to 5 percent, and in 2015, when we cheered the expiration of that tax increase. Our eyes are open to politicians' tactic of letting the pain build, allowing unfair and dishonorable damage to our neediest residents to grow ever more egregious until citizens are nearly crying for more revenue.

Yet, we reluctantly say the time has come. Raising the income tax, if accompanied by spending cuts and appropriate safeguards, is at this point an unavoidable step toward returning Illinois to solvency.

A vivid argument for that stance comes from Rep. David Harris of Arlington Heights, who pointed out the $800 million-a-year interest on the state's unpaid bills: "That's like putting $800 million in the middle of Arlington Heights Road and setting fire to it."

Separate from the income tax, a budget bill making $2.5 billion in program cuts offers some reassurance. But those reductions are just a starting point. Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton must follow through on revisiting other potential savings, including measures sought by Rauner that became a key point of contention in the budget standoff. It goes without saying the $5 billion from the income tax hike cannot be seen as a windfall for lawmakers to spend on new projects, but as a safety line dragging the state slowly back from a fiscal cliff.

Harris and fellow suburban Republicans Mike Fortner of West Chicago and Steve Andersson of Geneva take no small amount of political risk in backing the income tax. They deserve credit for voting their consciences, giving the tax increase a whiff of bipartisanship we fervently hope will help in rebuilding an ethic of thoughtfulness and negotiation in the General Assembly.

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