Yesterday, Gov. Pat Quinn announced a proposal to preserve the current homeowner tax exemption. We explain how the race for Cook County assessor might have impacted this effort.
If Gov. Pat Quinn's property tax recommendations are made into law this week, tax-burdened homeowners across Cook County will have reason to celebrate. The average Illinois resident forks over almost $2,000 annually to local and state governments in the form of property taxes, among the top 10 highest burdens nationwide. And those bills are growing steeper by the year, especially on those who can least afford to pay.
Part of the problem, as we've written before, is the declining value of the homeowner exemption (often referred to as the "7 percent cap"). The exemption is determined by the state legislature and, in 2007, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) negotiated a bill that hiked it to $33,000 for Cook County residents. But under Madigan's legislation, it fell to $20,000 last year and is scheduled to drop back down to $6,000 this year, meaning tax bills will rise yet again for millions of property owners.
Over the weekend, Quinn announced plans to push legislation to keep the $20,000 exemption in place this year. If it ultimately passes, Cook County homeowners likely won't suffer from the same sticker shock when assessments are mailed out in the fall. Quinn also proposed the formation of Taxpayer Action Board tasked with assisting those residents who want to appeal their assessments or property tax bills.
It's good to see Quinn advocating on the behalf of beleaguered homeowners. But why didn't he propose these changes earlier in the year, perhaps when he rolled out his FY 2011 budget proposal?
Most likely because Forrest Claypool hadn't yet entered the Cook County assessor's race as an independent challenger to Democratic nominee Joe Berrios.
During the primary season, Quinn raised plenty of eyebrows when he endorsed Berrios -- a longtime ally of Madigan's -- despite howls from editorial boards and reform groups, who largely supported the more progressive candidate, Ray Figueroa.
Following his primary victory, Berrios has repeatedly said that he wants to re-institute the higher exemption. But reformers aren't convinced of his sincerity. Just six weeks ago, retiring Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan alleged that Berrios tried to delay the release of this year's property tax bills until after the November election, presumably so the higher rates wouldn't land in voters' mailboxes just a few weeks before they headed out to the polls.
Then Claypool announced his candidacy in early April and railed against Berrios, saying he presents "a clear threat to homeowners and senior citizens throughout the county." Claypool highlighted Berrios' "cozy" relationship with Madigan and his reliance on campaign contributions from tax appeal attorneys. Moreover, he contrasted himself with Berrios by noting his own longtime support for the higher exemption.
While some thought Quinn might switch his support to Claypool (the two of them are friends), the governor confirmed recently that he is sticking with Berrios.
By suddenly pushing for the popular exemption boost, the governor is not only offsetting his vocal support for an income tax increase -- he also appears to be trying to defuse what could be a central issue in the assessor's race. And perhaps he thinks Madigan will be more likely to support the proposal if it comes with that added benefit to his buddy Berrios.
At the same time, Quinn's proposal would only extend the current exemption for one year. Claypool favors increasing it permanently.
So there you have the political backdrop behind Quinn's latest push in favor of property tax relief. Keep an eye on Springfield this week to see how the effort unfolds.