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Our view: Bring more transparency to tax breaks

If a business ponders leaving Illinois, state leaders quickly pay attention. When a business says “Jump,” state officials often respond, “How high?”

When the “jump” involves hefty tax incentives, the public really ought to be told “how high” they are – right away.

Legislation headed to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk would require just that.

The bill’s House sponsor is state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo. He has criticized tax breaks that favor one company over others in the past. Another concern is that tax incentives issued through the Economic Development for a Growing Economy program are kept secret well after they are awarded.

The stakes are high. Over the past 18 months, companies such as Sears Holdings Corp., CME Group Inc. and CBOE Holdings Inc. threatened to leave the state and take hundreds of jobs with them.

Quinn and the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity came up with EDGE tax incentives to keep them here – a combined $330 million.

Details weren’t released immediately. In the spirit of openness, Franks believes immediate release of tax break details is the least the state should do. We agree.

Franks wanted further oversight. He envisioned a five-person committee of experts to review proposed tax incentives, but state economic officials balked, and the proposal was excised from the bill.

The EDGE program has more than quadrupled since the mid-2000s. Tax breaks of $63 million in 2006 rose to $272 million in 2010, even as the state’s budget was stressed to the max.

Government needs tax dollars, but residents need jobs. The EDGE program reduces tax revenue, but it preserves jobs.

Is the trade-off in everyone’s best interests?

Taxpaying Illinoisans need to know details of the tax breaks in a timely fashion. That way, they can judge for themselves whether the state’s “jump” is the appropriate height.

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