Only in Illinois: Big week for master strategist, House Speaker Michael Madigan

May 23, 2014

A month ago, we ran the “obituary” of the “millionaire tax” House Speaker Michael Madigan tried to pass. Now it looks like we may have closed the coffin prematurely.

This week Madigan revived the millionaire tax — which would impose a 3 percent tax on incomes of $1 million a year or more — as an advisory referendum for voters in the Nov. 4 election. If approved it would join a similar advisory measure on whether Illinois should raise it’s minimum wage. And Madigan already has arranged placement of two constitutional amendments, one establishing a crime victims’ bill of rights and the other safeguarding voting rights, before voters in November.

It was a busy week for the nation’s longest serving speaker of the house, and it also included one big failure (or at least what looked like a failure) when Madigan’s Democratic caucus resoundingly rejected making the 2011 income tax increase permanent.

The workings of master political strategist Madigan is what we’re talking about on this week’s “Only in Illinois.”

Madigan has been a supporter of Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal to make permanent the income tax rates passed in January 2011, which increased the personal tax rate from 3 to 5 percent and raised the corporate to 7 percent. The 2011 law requires that the rates fall back to 3 and 5.25 percent, respectively, at the end of this year. Quinn warned in his budget address that allowing the rates to fall as scheduled would trigger drastic cuts to state government, including education funding for local school districts.

While Quinn’s request faces minimal, if any, resistance from Democrats in the Senate, its chances in the House had been difficult to discern until this week. Quinn spoke to House Democrats for more than two hours on Tuesday, urging them to support keeping the higher rates. But on Wednesday, Madigan announced that only 34 of his 71 members were firm “yes” votes. It takes 60 votes to pass a bill in the House. All Republicans in both chambers of the General Assembly have voted to vote against keeping the higher rates, which were passed originally without any Republican support.

Here’s the political dilemma for Madigan: Though he wants the tax increase to stay in place — it will mean an extra $1.8 billion in next year’s budget — he also wants to make sure all his members get reelected in November. Some of those members will get a hostile reception from voters in the fall if they voted for a tax increase in May. And protecting his majority always has been Madigan’s priority both as house speaker (a position he has held for all but two years since 1983) and as leader of the Illinois Democratic Party since 1998.Faced with risking the loss of members or advancing Quinn’s agenda, Madigan likely would choose the former.

But the legislature must pass a budget by its adjournment date of May 31. If Madigan can’t find the 26 votes he needs for the tax increase, the General Assembly and Quinn will have to formulate a far more austere budget for fiscal year 2015, which starts July 1.

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Related: Jason Gonzales on challenging Michael Madigan in Democratic primary: "It's time for change"
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House Speaker Michael Madigan has been in the Illinois General Assembly since 1971, has been speaker of the Illinois House for all but two years since 1983 and is chairman…

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