Illinois Senate to weigh revised tax-break plan

December 13, 2011

The Associated Press

 

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Under pressure to act quickly, the Illinois Senate is scheduled Tuesday to consider tax relief for some big-name companies threatening to leave the state. The proposal is part of a $330 million package sweetened by aid for smaller businesses and struggling families.

CME Group Inc., which operates the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Sears Holdings Corp., has been urging lawmakers to take action before the end of the year. Along with the trading company CBOE Holding Inc., CME has threatened to move to different states unless Illinois helps cut its tax bills.

The Senate is scheduled to meet a day after the tax package passed the Illinois House. The Senate has approved similar legislation in the past, so the latest version is likely to get the chamber's stamp of approval.

Some House members were dubious about responding to threats from businesses, and protesters in the House gallery on Monday unfurled a banner saying "Stop Corporate Extortion." Their timing was off, though: They displayed the message while lawmakers were debating tax breaks for individuals.

House approval marked a dramatic turnaround. Just two weeks ago, a similar package failed 8-99, with some lawmakers demanding more relief for poor families and others opposing any help for the poor.

This time, backers split the proposal into separate bills, one dealing with corporate taxes and the other with personal taxes. Each bill then passed because the two groups of opponents were voting against different bills. The business measure passed 81-28. Tax relief for families passed 67-49.

Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn called the package "a win for the people of Illinois" because it would help business while also offering some relief to families.

The financial exchanges had appealed for lower taxes by arguing that it's no longer appropriate for the state to tax every one of their transactions as if they take place on a Chicago trading floor. Most are now handled electronically and do not involve buyers or sellers in Illinois.

Under the proposal headed for the Senate, the exchanges would be taxed on just 27.54 percent of their revenue, a somewhat arbitrary figure legislators said should be re-examined later. The change should save the companies about $85 million a year.

CME employs about 2,000 people in Illinois. If the company were to move, most of those jobs would move, too, but executives say the trading floors for the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange would stay.

Sears would be granted an extension of an economic development credit it has been getting for years. It would save $15 million a year for the next 10 years. A break on local taxes for its headquarters in the Chicago suburbs would also be renewed. Sears called the House vote a "major step" and said it hoped the Senate would follow suit.

Losing the Sears headquarters would cost Illinois about 6,000 jobs.

Lawmakers also approved $2 million in tax breaks to encourage production of live theater in Chicago and $350,000 a year in credits for Champion Laboratories Inc., a southern Illinois company that is moving to the Chicago suburbs.

For businesses in general, the package includes a research-and-development credit, a more generous method of writing off losses, extension of a tax break for ethanol and an expansion of what property is exempt from estate taxes. The cost of these measures would be roughly $120 million a year.

Critics fear the corporate tax breaks will take scarce dollars away from state services.

The Service Employees International Union asked why CME Group needs tax relief when it is making huge amounts of money — $316 million in the most recent quarter alone.

The tax breaks for families would cost the state about $110 million a year and come in two forms.

One is an increase in the personal income tax exemption. It now stands at $2,000, which means for every person in a household $2,000 is exempt from state taxes. The new legislation would raise that to $2,050 and require it to rise each year with the rate of inflation.

The other tax break is an increase in the state's earned-income tax credit, which helps the working poor hang on to more of their money. The credit is now 5 percent of the federal tax credit. The House action would raise that to 10 percent.

House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, said the increase means a single mother making minimum wage and raising two children would see her $400 state tax bill cut to $259. That money goes back into the economy and helps Illinois businesses, she said.

"This is not money people are going to sit on. It's money they are going to spend," Currie said.