Illinois Lawmakers Ponder Dangerous Politics of Tax Hikes | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Illinois Lawmakers Ponder Dangerous Politics of Tax Hikes

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and legislative leaders meet again Wednesday morning behind closed doors. Hard choices are ahead on the state budget, and the pressure's amped-up as the June 30 budget deadline draws near. Quinn says lawmakers must pass an income tax increase, or face big cuts. And it's going to take votes from members of both parties to pass any new budget deal. Some lawmakers holding those key votes now find themselves in a lose-lose political situation.

Governor Pat Quinn says it wasn't easy for him to propose an income tax hike. But he says he didn't have another option. And, he says, neither do lawmakers.

QUINN: Ultimately, it's going to come down to getting in the arena and voting for revenue. It'll be the toughest vote that many legislators have ever made in their whole political career.

ambi: door knocks 

FARNHAM: Hello!

Keith Farnham is one of those legislators Quinn is talking about.

FARNHAM: Did I bother you?...Oh, I'm sorry...I didn't mean to wake you up.

Along with 25 other House Democrats and all the Republicans, Farnham voted against the income tax hike that came before the House late last month. A freshman Democrat who knocked off the GOP incumbent last fall by just 295 votes, Farnham is spending his time in office much like he spent his campaign: knocking on the doors of registered voter after registered voter.

In Northwest suburban Carpentersville this week, Farnham performed a little opinion poll.

FARNHAM: I've been asking people lately, because there's been so much about tax increases, where do you stand with that?
TIM WALKER: I mean, we're a low-to-mid income family and we've been living here for nine years now. We bought the house nine years ago, and all of our taxes keep going up. My real estate tax goes up, my...

Tim Walker works the night shift at a warehouse in Elk Grove Village.

FARNHAM: I need to hear that from you. And that's why I come to your door. There are people that come to my office and holler, "Raise taxes! Raise taxes, because we need more money."
WALKER: No, no, no. I can't believe that there are not moneys to be found somewhere to take care of some of these shortcomings without coming to us again.

Representative Farnham says he understands the concerns of groups staring at major budget cuts. But, bottom line, in his highly competitive suburban district, Farnham understands the political consequences of any vote to boost the income tax.

FARHMAN: I don't think it's acceptable right now among the vast majority of the people in my district.
HUDZIK: You think you'd lose in two years?
FARNHAM: I think there would be a backlash, yeah.

ambi: protest chant

About 30 miles away in Glenview, a small group of protesters warns of a political backlash if lawmakers don't support a tax hike. They're with SEIU Healthcare, a union representing home healthcare workers who could lose their jobs if budget cuts go through.

A few months ago, SEIU was dumping thousands of dollars into the reelection campaign of state Representative Beth Coulson. Now union organizers are putting flyers on cars in her office parking lot. Last month, she voted with all the other Republicans against the income tax increase.

ambi: protest chant

COULSON: I'm 100 percent behind the home care workers, and they know I am.

Representative Coulson is a 7-term, moderate Republican in a swing district. And she says the Quinn administration needs to work on cutting costs before she even considers an income tax hike.

COULSON: As we move along here in these budget negotiation, we will find the right way to balance the budget if everybody gets off of their political soap boxes and comes down to do business. I think then I can make the decision that's right for the state and right for my constituents.

And Coulson can't look to Illinois history for clear consequences of voting for - or against - a tax hike. The issue didn't make many waves in the 1990 election, a year after the income tax was raised to its current level.

There's a different lesson if you go back - way back - to 1970. The year before, the state's first-ever income tax was pushed by the Republican Governor Richard Ogilvie, but also received votes from some Democrats. On election day, though, voters blamed the GOP, leading to big Republican losses.

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