Minimum wage gets go-ahead in HousePlan to keep electric rate freeze faltering
Thursday, November 30, 2006
by John Chase and Ray Long
SPRINGFIELD -- The Democratic-led House approved a dollar-an-hour increase Wednesday in the state's minimum wage, overriding Republican objections that the move would jeopardize the competitiveness of Illinois businesses.
But residential electrical customers appeared more likely to face a sizable increase in their bills in the new year because House and Senate Democratic leaders could not agree on whether to extend an expiring rate freeze or phase in higher rates.
Cook County property owners also faced the potential of higher real estate tax bills after House lawmakers rejected a plan to extend a cap on assessment increases, though the plan could resurface in January.
House lawmakers also narrowly approved a measure that would allow counties outside of Cook to levy up to a $2 per pack tax on cigarettes, a plan pushed by DuPage County leaders. But prospects for passage dimmed when Senate President Emil Jones (D-Chicago) called it a bad idea.
Late Wednesday, Jones pressed ahead with a spending bill that would include money to fund previously approved pay raises for lawmakers, as well as additional cost-of-living increases. The funding plan, approved by a Senate panel, would go beyond the near-10 percent raise the Senate voted to give lawmakers two weeks ago and would actually boost current base legislative pay by 15.6 percent to $68,800. But the House was not expected to review it before the new year.
With lawmakers scheduled to finish their work for the year on Thursday, the increase in the minimum wage appeared to be the most likely accomplishment. Gov. Rod Blagojevich and other Democrats had campaigned heavily on the issue in the fall in trying to demonstrate their affinity for working people.
Approved by the House and sent to the Senate on a 74-43 vote, the measure would increase the minimum wage to $7.50 an hour in July, with subsequent increases bringing it to $8.25 an hour by 2010. The legislation would make Illinois' minimum wage among the highest in the nation.
A Senate panel endorsed the House-passed measure, setting the stage for a final vote on Thursday.
Some Republicans contended the measure would hurt small-business owners, particularly those in areas near the state's borders.
"Those jobs will disappear. Where they will be is across the state lines," said Rep. David Winters (R-Rockford). "We are increasing jobs, not in Illinois, but in every other state that borders us."
But supporters of the measure argued that workers are struggling under the state's current $6.50 wage rate and a $1-an-hour increase means a full-time worker receiving minimum wage would earn $300 a week.
"Forty hours of work for four weeks earns you $1,200," said Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago), "and, with that, a person is expected to do all the things that many of us have to do--try to pay rent, pay groceries, pay for transportation, clothing, food and shelter."
But the two Chicago Democrats who head the House and Senate remained at odds over plans to try to alleviate the shock of projected 22 percent electrical rate increases for Commonwealth Edison customers when a 10-year rate freeze expires with the new year.
House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) maintained that lawmakers would come to support his plan to extend the rate freeze for three years when it is considered in early January. But Jones won a Senate panel's endorsement of his plan to phase in the increases over a three-year period.
In Chicago, John Rowe, the CEO of ComEd parent Exelon, said ComEd has wanted to compromise for a year and officials hoped they could reach an agreement with Madigan.
Asked why Madigan doesn't believe ComEd's warnings of dire financial consequences without a rate increase, Rowe called the speaker "a very smart, very complicated, very powerful man."
"I wish I could find a way to make peace with him as we have with others," Rowe said. "The Commonwealth Edison Co. is at risk as long as we don't have a peace with Mr. Speaker."
Also on Wednesday, the House fell 10 votes shy of backing a plan to immediately extend a 7 percent cap in Cook County on property assessment increases.
Supporters argue the bill would continue the cap first approved in 2004 to limit skyrocketing property taxes on homes in Chicago and Cook County. Critics argued the cap shifts the tax burden onto others, including small businesses.
The bill called for extending a current homeowner's exemption on assessments to a maximum of $20,000. Another bill, increasing the exemption to $60,000, previously passed the Senate and was endorsed by Cook County Assessor James Houlihan.
Houlihan did not support maintaining the maximum at $20,000, but Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) said his measure kept it at that level because some critics felt a larger exemption was "skewed in favor of larger properties and big homeowners."
Rep. John Fritchey (D-Chicago) said the bill would be brought back when lawmakers reconvene in January and will need fewer votes for passage. He said that was little solace for homeowners.
DuPage County Board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom, meanwhile, won a House victory for his plan to allow his county and others to raise cigarette taxes.
The measure, backed by Will and Lake County leaders, got a near-minimum 61 votes.