A newly-formed coalition of community groups, social service providers, unions, and faith-based organizations -- representing millions of Illinois residents -- is urging legislative leaders to support new state revenue.
Gov. Pat Quinn says that he won't push lawmakers to take up an income tax vote until after the primaries in early February. But a newly-formed coalition of community groups, social service providers, unions (including the SEIU Illinois Council, which sponsors this website), and faith-based organizations -- representing millions of Illinois residents -- is now urging legislative leaders to pick up the pace.
Hundreds gathered at a Chicago's Spertus Institute yesterday afternoon to celebrate the launch of the Responsible Budget Coalition (RBC), which is calling on the General Assembly to pass a fair and balanced budget. RBC supports the principles laid out in State Sen. James Meeks' HB 174, which passed the Senate in May, stalled in the House, and is expected to be revived early next year. By increasing the personal and corporate income tax rate, applying the sales tax to luxury services, and shielding low- and moderate-income earners (by increasing the personal exemption by $1,000, tripling the state's Earned Income Tax Credit, and doubling the property tax credit), the Coalition argues that the state could generate adequate revenue to maintain the state's human care infrastructure, begin to pay off its pension debt, and equalize funding for education.
Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) agrees. The legislative leader told the crowd that the state just can't pay its obligations without reworking its broken tax structure. "We have an income problem," he added, "not a spending problem." Closing the budget gap now makes long-term fiscal sense for the state, as well. Voices for Illinois Children estimates that the state will face a budget deficit of anywhere between $10.4 billion and $11.7 billion (PDF) in FY 2011, when the federal stimulus dollars stop flowing from Washington. "Next year," said state Board of Education chair Jesse Ruiz, "we fall off the cliff." And without any action, lawmakers will have missed an unprecedented opportunity to reform the state's education funding system, a problem they often gripe about but never solve. Once revenues kick back up and the deficit had been plugged, HB 174 would pump additional funding into Illinois schools and help shift the system away from its inequitable reliance on property taxes.
But while the economics of a responsible budget are important, many of the assembled speakers also emphasized the moral dimension of lawmakers and taxpayers banding together and care for the state's most vulnerable. Lee Gilbert, a 65-year old blind woman who relies on a state-financed home care worker to help with daily chores, expressed anxiety that the services she benefits from could be discontinued. "We need to provide this," she said, "so I can continue to be an independent person." In the most impassioned plea of the afternoon, Rev. Calvin Morris -- executive director of the Community Renewal Society -- suggested that legislators remember the words of Prophet Micah before they cast their votes: "Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your god." (See the video above.)
Former comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, who made an income tax hike a major component of her 1994 gubernatorial campaign, was blown away by the energy in the room. With the state's debts growing and services endangered, she said now is the time to put "patience aside" and get something done. On October 15, the Coalition will try to do just that by hosting a rally to in Springfield to welcome lawmakers back for the fall veto session. We'll be sure to follow their next moves.
Full Disclosure: The SEIU Illinois State Council, which sponsors this website, is a member of the Responsible Budget Coalition.