GOP mulls tobacco cash for tax cuts
SPRINGFIELD--Legislative leaders Thursday began to hungrily eye the state's $9.1 billion tobacco settlement as an untapped pot to pay for election year tax cuts.
With about $215 million in the bank from the 25-year settlement, lawmakers and almost all of the elected leaders in Springfield have advanced proposals on how to spend the state's share of the national settlement with tobacco companies. Thursday represented the first time leaders have earnestly considered using tobacco funds to pay for tax cuts, though how much was undecided.
Open to that idea, Gov. Ryan brought to the table a scaled-back, $350 million plan for a tax cut. It would provide property tax rebates of up to $300 for homeowners this year. His plan also would phase in pharmaceutical subsidies for low-income seniors and tax credits for the working poor.
And in another major legislative development, Ryan reported possible movement in talks to make illegal gun possession a felony. Under legislation being drafted, anyone caught with a loaded gun, or with an unloaded gun with ready access to ammunition, would be charged with a felony.
Gun owners would not face severe criminal charges if caught with their unloaded weapon if ammunition was stored somewhere out of reach, such as in an automobile trunk.
"We are encouraged by the tentative response we have heard from a lot of our members and some of the senators," said House Minority Leader Lee Daniels (R-Elmhurst).
But Senate President James "Pate" Philip (R-Wood Dale) cast doubts about an imminent deal.
"We aren't doing very well on guns," he said before entering his Statehouse office, where a National Rifle Association lobbyist was waiting for him.
After a tax-cut meeting, Daniels said tobacco funds would be tapped to help offset the cost of tax cuts.
"So what we're doing is dealing with one-time spending of tobacco funds instead of building into the base of the tobacco funds health care spending," he said.
In other words, it's "using temporary money for a temporary program," Ryan spokesman Dave Urbanek said.
Urbanek warned that the proposal is only one of several on the table and that Ryan has not taken a position on the issue.
The issue of using tobacco funds surfaced Thursday when Philip floated the idea of paying for a one-time, $300 million property tax rebate with tobacco funds.
The plan was quickly criticized by Democrats and some Republicans, prompting the Senate leaders to hold the measure temporarily in the Executive Committee.
"I've always indicated that I didn't like tobacco money being used for any property tax relief, period," Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones (D-Chicago) said. "I stated it [Thursday] morning. I stated it several times. Most of those dollars should be spent on health-related and [preventive] measures."
With various health and anti-smoking advocates actively lobbying for a chunk of the tobacco money, other lawmakers were shocked by Thursday's proposal, saying leaders are using the fund like a "piggy bank."
"From an economic perspective, there is absolutely no reason in this time of unprecedented economic growth to raid tobacco settlement dollars to achieve tax cuts and a workable budget," said Rep. John Fritchey (D-Chicago), who chairs a House tobacco panel.
Fritchey is an outspoken advocate of a tobacco plan that would spend the majority of dollars on health care and anti-smoking efforts.
But a Daniels spokesman downplayed the widespread criticism.
"My guess is if all this works out and the average taxpayer gets $200 or $300 checks in the mail, they won't worry about where the money came from," said Gregg Durham, Daniels' aide.