Income tax hike likely to remain


Northwest Side legislators said that the remaining weeks of the legislative session that ends May 31 likely will be spent dealing with next year’s budget and making the "temporary" income tax permanent in order to avoid cuts to human services and education.

"Everyone will certainly be looking at the budget issues," state Representative Greg Harris (D-13), who is the chairman of the Appropriations-Human Services Committee, said. "If you look at how far the state has gone, how we were able to pay down unpaid bills, reform pensions, work on health care and help the elderly, then we are getting to the point where we are able to keep our head above water."

Harris said that he will vote in favor of extending the income tax increase. "It will keep us where we are and prevent draconian cuts," he said.

The General Assembly raised the personal income tax rate from 3.0 percent to 5.0 percent, a 66 percent increase, in 2011. Under the terms of that bill, the 5.0 percent rate would remain in effect through this year and then decrease to 3.75 percent in 2015 and to 3.25 percent in 2025.

Governor Pat Quinn announced in his Fiscal Year 2015 budget address that he wants to maintain the income tax rate in order to keep the budget balanced and support education. In return, he wants legislators to approve a $500 property tax refund for home owners.

Quinn also proposed doubling the earned income tax credit years, cutting taxes for businesses that provide job training, spending $1.5 billion on the "Birth to Five" initiative that focuses on prenatal care and access to early childhood opportunities, doubling the state’s Monetary Assistance Program scholarships, and increasing classroom spending by $6 billion over the next 5 years.

State Representative Lou Lang (D-16) said that the legislature will extend the income tax rate.

"An elected official does not want to vote to keep a tax increase from expiring, but in this case I can see merit in extending it," Lang said. "We cut our budget down to the bone, and if someone can show me how to not cut human services, or help senior citizens and people with addiction problems, and educate our kids without that $2 billion that we will lose as a result of letting the tax expire, then step forward."

Lang said that a bill that he sponsored in the Illinois House would amend the medical marijuana pilot program that was approved last year to add epilepsy to the list of medical conditions for which marijuana can be prescribed. The bill would require the state Department of Public Health to adopt rules for issuing an identification card for qualifying patients who are under 18 years of age.

"The bill would add epilepsy to the list of diseases and let children to be able to use the oil to reduce seizures," Lang said. "They certainly won’t be able to smoke it."

However, local legislators balked at the idea that the legislature would address legalizing marijuana for recreational use in Illinois any time soon. A group of legislators have called on the General Assembly to create a task force to develop legislation that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

The legislators, county Commissioner John Fritchey (D-12) and state Representatives Kelly Cassidy (D-14), Michael Zalewski (D-23) and Christian Mitchell (D-26), maintain that creating a framework of marijuana regulation and taxation would reduce drug-related crime.

Marijuana arrests account for more than half of all drug arrests in the United States, and from 1975 to 2009 there were more than a million arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession in Illinois, with the majority of the cases being dismissed, Fritchey said.

Lang said that timing for such a proposal is "ill advised" when the medical marijuana program has not been implemented yet. "One controversial issue at a time, that’s how we do it here in Springfield," he said.

Harris said that the issue should be considered "because too many people are getting sent to the Department of Corrections for small amounts of pot." He said that the issue likely will not be addressed during this session.

State Representative Michael McAuliffe (R-20) said that the session will concentrate on the budget vote. McAuliffe said that the legislature will not address gambling expansion and that he will vote against making the tax increase permanent.

McAuliffe said that legalizing marijuana is a step in the wrong direction and that he would not support such legislation. He said that marijuana is a gateway drug to other harder drugs.

State Representative Robert Martwick (D-19) said that there is "no appetite for that in the legislature right now."

"It’s a real hot-button issue and I hope to stay open minded about it when the time comes to deal with it, but I won’t commit to how I would vote when there is no bill," Martwick said.

State Senator John Mulroe (D-10) said that he voted for the tax increase in 2011 because it was supposed to be temporary. "Considering what the effect it will have on the state and the children and old people, I’m hoping that we look at other options," Mulroe said.

Mulroe said that he voted for the increase in order to prevent the state’s economy from collapsing. "I don’t want to vote for it and it’s a tough choice to make, but where will the $2 billion come from?" he said.

Mulroe said that he is curious to see if Quinn signs the pension reform bill that would reduce cost of living increases in municipal retirement systems, a move that would force the City Council to vote for a property tax increase in during an election year.

"Legislators at all levels of government understand that we have the burden of pension liabilities that have to be solved," Harris said. "It will only get worse if we let it linger on. Everyone needs to do something about this so that people will have something for their retirement."

Mulroe said that he is working on a bill that would amend the Illinois Poison Prevention Packaging Act so that electronic cigarette cartridges and liquids could only be sold in special packaging and on a bill that would only allow such substances to be sold from behind the counter. Mulroe was a sponsor of a bill last year that requires e-cigarettes to be sold only to people age 18 and older.

Martwick said that another controversial bill that is being worked on is a proposal that would allow the Clinical Psychologists Licensing and Disciplinary Board to let psychologists with doctoral degrees prescribe medication to mentally ill patients. At present licensed psychiatrists are allowed to prescribe such medication.

The bill would license psychologists to prescribe medicine after they have completed a doctoral degree and have clinical experience in psychotherapy, a master’s degree in psychopharmacology, clinical experience in physical assessment and medication management, and a collaborative agreement with a physician.

"I imagine that the medical society does not want this and it will be a heated debate," Martwick said. He said that many Downstate communities do not have access to a prescribing psychiatrist and that the bill could alleviate the burden of getting medication for mental illness.

Martwick said that opponents of the bill maintain that the move could do more harm than good and that it would pose serious risk to the safety of patients, while supporters say that addressing access to medication in rural areas is important.