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Biz to pay under revamped property-tax cap bill

Thursday, September 20, 2007
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Thursday used his veto pen to remake the way in which Cook County grants property tax breaks, an action likely to shift hundreds of millions of dollars a year in tax bills from homeowners to business payers.
The dramatic action, announced at a Chicago press conference with County Assessor James Houlihan, immediately drew both strong praise and opposition. It also could set off yet another Springfield stalemate pitting the governor against his political nemesis, House speaker Michael Madigan, whose spokesman suggested the action could create at least a temporary crisis in which local officials are unable to send out second-half property-tax bills.
What the governor did is amend a bill that would extend an expiring law that limits assessment hikes on residential property in Cook County. The law is generally known as the “7% cap,” because it effectively limits annual hikes to no more than 7%. Under that law, homeowners are entitled to reduce the equalized assessed value of their home by up to $20,000. A bill passed by the General Assembly increases the break to $33,000, but reduces the break to zero over the next few years to anyone with a household income of more than $75,000.
Mr. Blagojevich’s amendment would enlarge the break to $40,000 and make it permanent — an action that Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation of Chicago, said would likely save homeowners hundreds of millions of dollars a year but cost business land owners just as much, assuming local governments do not reduce their overall property-tax levy.
Mr. Blagojevich, who increasingly has focused his attention on efforts to get business to pay more taxes, said he’s revising the bill lawmakers sent him because it does too little to help financially strapped homeowners.
“Forty-nine of 50 aldermen said this bill wasn’t good enough,” the governor said, referring to a letter that urged a bigger tax break for homeowners. Less than half of the county’s homeowners would come out ahead under the bill lawmakers sent him, but at least 76% will gain under the revised version, he added. And “many large office buildings, including the John Hancock Center and the Prudential Plaza” will no longer get tax cuts.
State Rep. John Fritchey, D-Chicago, chief sponsor of the bill the governor amended, said the governor “may have pulled off a master stroke” and could “become a hero to homeowners.” Mr. Fritchey noted that he and other lawmakers wanted to pass a larger residential tax break, but were blocked by the House speaker. Mr. Madigan works as a property-tax lawyer representing businesses.
But Mr. Fritchey said he’s not certain what will happen if the House overrides the veto and the Senate doesn’t. That’s a real possibility, since Mr. Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones repeatedly have clashed this year.
Mr. Brown’s spokesman said he assumes the veto bill be overridden in both houses. But if the two houses split, “the bill dies.” That means homeowners could end up with nothing, and leaves county officials uncertain of what bills to mail out when.
The House is not due to even reconvene until October.
President Jones released a statement leaving himself plenty of wiggle room on the matter. The statement termed the veto "a step forward in terms of providing significant, permanent property tax relief," but also expressed the hope that all parties will work to resolve the matter expeditiously.
Assessor Houlihan discounted the likelihood of a standoff that would kill the bill. Mr. Houlihan said he believes there will be some agreement that continues the tax cap at some level.
Mr. Houlihan agreed that the veto, if sustained, would shift hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes from homeowners to businesses.
The civic federation’s Mr. Msall said the tax watchdog group “is very concerned” about the governor’s changes. “We don’t think it’s a good idea to extend these temporary limits beyond the next three years.”
Mr. Msall’s group believes that the sharp escalation of home values of recent years may be ending. If so, the share of property taxes paid by business will increase, or at least stabilize.
Gerald Roper, president and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, said the governor's action underlines the need for overall tax reform that is fair to all groups.
The change "shifts more money onto the business community," and effectively cuts taxes for "wealthy North Side homeowners," he said. "You have a swarm of taxes that's going to drive companies out of this county and out of this state."

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