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State House votes to send property-tax relief plan to Senate

Thursday, October 04, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Ray Long

SPRINGFIELD - The House kept alive a property-tax break for Cook County homeowners Wednesday but soundly rejected a broader relief package Gov. Rod Blagojevich wanted.

In a legislative session that's been filled with one-upmanship, however, it remains unclear how the Senate will address the issue. And that means property-tax bills still can't be mailed.

The House vote restored the lower level of relief lawmakers sent to the governor over the summer, including a provision that would phase the tax break out over three years. Blagojevich had used his rewrite powers to raise the amount of relief for homeowners and make it permanent.
House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) said her proposal represented the "only game in town" for relief on the next tax bills because she doubted the Senate could approve the Blagojevich plan that he outlined in an amendatory veto.

"We are at the 11th hour," she said.

The House joined Currie in the override of the governor's proposed changes, sending the originally approved levels of relief to the Senate on a 92-19 vote. Critics contended Blagojevich's version unfairly shifted millions in property taxes onto businesses and did not give targeted relief to the homeowners who needed it most.

The two chambers must agree on the same measure or the relief expires. Without action to extend the 7 percent cap either permanently or temporarily, most Chicago homeowners will see higher bills this fall. Suburban Cook would get hit over the next two years if the law expires.

The Senate's next move is still in question. President Emil Jones (D-Chicago) has pushed to the Senate floor a separate bill that reflects the governor's higher level of relief.

Sen. Terry Link (D-Waukegan), Jones' point man on the issue, predicted the Senate will have no trouble passing whatever version of the 7 percent legislation it chooses and predicted a tax-relief package soon would be approved. But the Senate must decide whether to go along with the House, pass the separate legislation now pending on the Senate floor or find a compromise with the House and pass that, Link said.

"I feel very optimistic," Link said.

Yet Sen. Rickey Hendon (D-Chicago), another member of Jones' leadership team, called the House vote "outrageous" because it watered-down the relief package. He said the Senate may end up going along with the House action "just to give the people something."

"If this goes down in flames, there'll be hell to pay," Hendon said.

Blagojevich issued a statement, saying he was "disappointed" the House "chose to take property-tax relief away from homeowners in Cook County" and protect commercial property owners and real estate developers instead.

Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan, who has clashed with House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) on the issue, charged the House played "political games" that will provide little relief to soaring bills.

The current law, passed in 2004, granted homeowners an exemption of up to $20,000 in an attempt to limit the annual growth of their taxable-assessed value to 7 percent. In the first year, 80 percent of Chicago homeowners saw their tax bills drop - despite the increase in their property's value - as the tax burden was shifted to businesses, apartment buildings and other taxpayers.

With the cap law about to expire and new assessments of city property in hand, Houlihan maintained homeowners of high-value properties and those that have seen exceptional increases in value would need more than a $20,000 exemption to keep the growth of their taxable-assessed values at 7 percent a year.

The governor's change would have raised the exemption to $40,000, but the House action would reinstate the lower amounts that passed both chambers, Currie said.

That legislation focused on initially boosting the exemption to $33,000 for this fall's tax bills in Chicago, which would be the first year of the proposed three-year extension. The relief would be phased down to $26,000 and $20,000 in the second and third years throughout Cook County, Currie said.

It also would provide targeted relief for low-income homeowners along with exemptions that decreased each year before ending in three years.

The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce applauded the House action, saying that phasing out the cap is better than making it permanent.

The impasse in Springfield means Cook County officials don't know how much, if any, relief should be reflected on property tax bills. Houlihan has said he hoped to have the first of two installments due by Nov. 15 if lawmakers act quickly.

In other action, the Senate rejected the governor's veto of legislation that would require a moment of silence in public schools. The governor was concerned the measure would violate restrictions that separate church and state. The vote to override the governor sent the measure to the House.

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