Heated debates over taxes, abortion belie budget progress

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Heated debates over income taxes and abortion funding in the state Capitol Tuesday belied what legislative leaders said was a collegial negotiation over the full budget which made lawmakers optimistic they could complete their work by Thursday’s deadline.

The Democratic-controlled House endorsed a resolutioncalling for abandoning Illinois’ flat income tax for a graduated tax that hits wealthier taxpayers harder than those of lesser means. It’s endorsed by Democratic candidate for governor J.B. Pritzker, but the vote was 61-52 in a legislative chamber with 67 Democrats.

Rep. Greg Harris of Chicago, the House Democrats’ budget negotiator, said the four legislative leaders have a working plan they’re considering, while lawmakers on both sides continue hashing out a capital construction plan.

“There’s a will to get this done,” Harris said. “It’s just something people want to see us do.”

Chicago Sen. Heather Steans, another budget negotiator, said capital-plan questions center on priority projects, money available, and what’s immediately necessary to rectify the Legionnaires’ disease crisis at the Quincy veterans’ home.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has called for a $248 million reconstruction of the campus to rid it of aged plumbing and structures likely harboring the Legionella bacteria that has led to the deaths of 13 residents since 2015. Rauner’s plan covers five years. Steans said lawmakers are focusing on what money is necessary for Quincy this year.

A Rauner spokeswoman noted that “constant negotiations continue.”

The vote on the progressive income tax has political, if not practical, impact. A change would take a constitutional amendment, a proposition which voters couldn’t consider before 2020. But Pritzker and legislative Democrats have made it a rallying cry to make the wealthy pay more in taxes than the middle class.

“Lower-income people are spending twice as much of their resources on taxes as are billionaires,” said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat.

Republicans claim it’s a money grab by Democrats that will hurt the middle class. Rep. Margo McDermed, a Mokena Republican, said the largely middle-class constituency she represents in Will County would pay an average $1,031 more per year on a graduated system.

“When you hear ‘progressive,’ when you hear ‘graduated,’ when you hear ‘fair,’ that is just a lie,” McDermed said. “It’s a way of trying to get you to think that it applies to you.”

The abortion debate was led by Rep. Peter Breen of Lombard, the House GOP floor leader, joined later at a news conference by nine colleagues, including three Democrats. They don’t want to vote for a state budget that includes money for abortions as approved last year by Rauner, who signed legislation to provide pregnancy termination under state health insurance and Medicaid.

But under questioning from reporters, only Breen committed to voting against the state budget if it includes abortion funding.

“This is a moral issue,” Breen said. “You can’t possibly represent your district if morally you can’t represent yourself.”