State Government

Local lawmakers file last-ditch effort to freeze property taxes statewide

Two McHenry County lawmakers in the Illinois House are making a last-ditch effort in the final two days of lame-duck session to permanently freeze property taxes statewide and ensure that a last-minute income tax increase isn’t rammed through.

The move comes as a compromise deal to end an 18-month state budget standoff – including a significant income tax increase – began working its way through the Senate. But the deal only will pave the way for consideration when the new General Assembly gets sworn in Wednesday – there is not enough time to get it through the House, and even if there was, a resolution putting most House members on record as opposing a lame-duck income tax increase almost certainly would have made the deal dead on arrival.

In one of his last acts as a state lawmaker, Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, amended an existing Senate bill to carry the legislation freezing property taxes. It seeks to set a tax cap of zero percent on all taxing bodies in the state, including home-rule units – the only way local governments could receive any increase is by voter referendum.

Franks announced the bill Monday morning, sharing a news conference with several other lawmakers including Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, who masterminded the resolution opposing a lame-duck tax hike. If the bill does not pass by midnight Wednesday, it dies with the swearing in of the new General Assembly, where it could be refiled.

But ensuring that there's no chance of raising taxes during the last days of the session – the way that the unpopular 67 percent income tax increase was rammed through in 2011 with the help of lawmakers leaving office – was the main point of the conference. The Illinois Constitution gives lawmakers a window in early January to pass controversial legislation after the November election via simple majority rather than a three-fifths supermajority.

Franks referred to a lame-duck tax vote as a "zombie apocalypse" with the "walking dead" being lawmakers leaving office who would not have a problem voting to raise taxes.

"They have nothing to lose and have nobody to be accountable to," Franks said.

The Senate Assignments Committee on Monday approved eight measures that include an increase in the income tax rate on individual taxpayers – which includes many small businesses – to 4.95 percent, up from 3.75 percent. Other bills would allow borrowing to pay off an $11 billion backlog of overdue bills, increase the minimum wage, expand legalized gambling, consolidate local governments, pay Chicago teachers' portion of their pensions and enact changes to state employees' pensions to save the state money.

McSweeney called the idea of a tax hike an "absolute disaster" for Illinois taxpayers and businesses. His House Resolution 1494 passed by an 87-12 margin at the end of November, putting 54 Democrats and 33 Republicans on record as opposing raising taxes before the new General Assembly is seated.

"I, 100 percent, 1,000 percent, oppose an income tax increase. And then, to add insult to injury, they're talking about a beverage tax," McSweeney said.

With the exception of a six-month stopgap spending plan that expired Jan. 1, Illinois has limped since July 2015 without an annual budget. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who vetoed the deficit budget approved by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, will not entertain tax increases without the passage of some of his proposed reforms. Democratic leaders have opposed Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda,” especially points that weaken collective bargaining and prevailing wage laws – they maintain that those items should be negotiated separately from the budget.

Among the reforms Rauner is pushing for is a statewide freeze on property taxes, which the Franks bill seeks to address. It heads to the House floor for a vote after clearing committee Monday afternoon.

Several studies place Illinois’ property tax burden at either the highest or the second highest in the nation – one of the studies places McHenry County’s burden at the 29th highest by county in the U.S. Property taxes for many homeowners and businesses have stayed the same or increased each year, despite the fact that property values plummeted with the bursting of the housing bubble.

Any attempt to freeze property taxes would be fought hard by local government lobbying groups, which hold significant sway over state lawmakers, many of whom started in local government before being elected to Springfield.

Franks’ final term as state lawmaker – voters elected him as the first popularly elected McHenry County Board chairman – ends Wednesday. He will be succeeded by Republican Steven Reick to represent the 63rd House District.

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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