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Legislators talk of county tax cap
State session may be winding down

Tuesday, August 07, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Ray Long and Mickey Ciokajlo

Tribune staff reporters Monique Garcia in Springfield and David Mendell in Chicago contributed to this report

SPRINGFIELD - An agreement to renew property-tax breaks for Cook County homeowners advanced Monday on a bipartisan vote in a Senate committee, setting up the compromise for likely votes this week in both chambers.

The deal on a three-year extension of the so-called 7 percent cap on property assessments was a major sign that key elements are falling into place for lawmakers to wrap up their record overtime session.

Legislative leaders pored over the finer points of a full-year spending plan being prepared for a likely vote this week. But they wrestled over a deal that would put a land-based casino in Chicago to help bolster school funding and help provide funding for a capital plan for roads, bridges, school construction and university buildings.
House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego said his caucus, which had previously only supported expanding gambling at current riverboats, was now open to a Chicago casino and possibly another new casino if it means more money for construction projects.

A key Democratic budget expert estimated the amount of money for schools, already projected to receive a healthy increase of about $600 million in the operating budget proposal, could rise with new gambling money to as much as $900 million. That would be about twice the normal annual increase in education funding.

The state has been without major spending authority since a temporary, one-month budget expired July 31. Comptroller Dan Hynes warned that Wednesday is a major deadline for getting an operating plan in place because an initial round of paychecks to nearly 5,000 state workers and school payments would be disrupted if spending authority is not approved. Cross said a vote that soon "may be difficult."

In Chicago, Gov. Rod Blagojevich dismissed Hynes' view, calling Wednesday an "artificial" and "arbitrary date." Even so, Blagojevich directed a state agency to offer no-interest loans to schools desperately needing the payment. A credit union also is offering no-interest loans to state workers at the governor's behest. Blagojevich insisted there is "no emergency."

The agreement on the 7 percent property-assessment cap went to the full Senate on a 9-0 bipartisan vote of the Senate Revenue Committee, with one Republican voting present. The proposal is supported by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley but opposed by Cook County Assessor James Houlihan, who sought more relief.

The current 2004 law is set to expire for Chicago homeowners this year. It raised the homestead exemption for each home to a maximum of $20,000 in an effort to limit the annual increase in a property's taxable assessed value to 7 percent. That figure would rise to $33,000 under the new legislation but would decrease to $26,000 in the second year and $19,000 in the third year, when the compromise is set to expire.

Patrick Hanlon, Houlihan's lobbyist, contended the "ratcheting down" of the homeowner exemption in the last two years will cause tax bills to soar. Hanlon said the assessor preferred a homeowner exemption of $60,000 that previously passed the Senate but stalled in the House. Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) had pushed a previous version at a $30,000 level the first year along with decreases in subsequent years.

"It appears now our choices are between this bill before us and doing nothing," said Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), the committee's chairman.

Under the legislation, the maximum exemption actually could go as high as $40,000 for Chicago homeowners. That's because an additional exemption of up to $7,000 would be available for properties where the value increased by 100 percent or more during the last two assessment cycles. That is the case for about half of Chicago's homestead-eligible properties.

The provision would not be available to suburban homeowners next year when they start to see the effects of reassessments because a new income-based provision would have taken effect.

Starting next year, owners who have been in their homes for 10 years and have a household income of $75,000 or less would have the growth of their taxable assessed value limited to 7 percent annually. Households with incomes of up to $100,000 would have the assessment growth capped at 10 percent a year.

"The real effort here is to help the lower-income people whose neighborhoods are gentrifying around them," said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago).

Both Sen. Terry Link (D-Waukegan), the sponsor, and Currie said the bill has support in both chambers.

The legislation includes a broad set of new property tax breaks, including assistance for disabled veterans and veterans returning from armed conflict.

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