CHICAGO -- Illinois Senate Republicans saod they plan to introduce a bill today that would extend to Cook County a property tax cap law that bars the issuance of general obligation bonds unless approved by voters.
The law, already in effect since Oct. 1 in five suburban Chicago counties, limits annual property tax collection increases by non-home-rule governments to 5% or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. The law also requires a referendum for any bonds issued that are directly or indirectly backed by property taxes.
The bill covering Cook County would become law immediately if passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor. Under the state constitution, a law with an immediate effective date requires a three-fifths majority by both the House and the Senate.
Although many Republicans in the legislature back the bill, Steve Brown, a spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, who opposes the bill, said he doubted whether supporters could garner the necessary votes needed for passage.
The General Assembly is meeting this month and next month to consider Gov. Jim Edgar's vetoes of bills passed in the spring session, but other substantive bills can be considered.
A sponsor of the bill, Sen. Judy Baar Topinka, R-Riverside, said the reason for the immediate effective date was to avoid what she termed "a feeding frenzy of bonding," which occurred while the law covering the five suburban counties was being debated and after it passed in July. Municipal bond industry officials said they noticed a significant increase in suburban Chicago bond issues before the Oct. 1 deadline.
"That certainly violated the intent of the law," Sen. Topinka said.
The bill to be introduced today would exempt both Chicago and the Cook County Board of Commissioners from the tax cap, as they are both home-rule governments. But one of the sponsors of the bill, Sen. Walter Dudycz, R-Chicago, said he would seek to amend the bill after it is introduced to include those two issuers.
"All we're talking about is accountability," Sen. Dudycz said. "If taxing districts need the money, they should go to the voters."
Noelle Gaffney, a spokeswoman for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, said city officials would oppose any effort to include Chicago under a tax cap law, explaining that it would "undermine our home-rule authority."
She declined to comment on how a tax cap could effect the city's finances. In August, the city's office of budget and management estimated a $124 million shortfall in the city's corporate fund for fiscal 1992, which begins Jan. 1.
Cook County Board President Richard Phelan also would oppose the tax cap being extended to home-rule governments, according to Woods Bowman, the county's chief financial officer. He added the county should be crippled in its efforts to build a new hospital and expand Cook County Jail if subjected to the bond restrictions in the tax cap law.
All county school districts, including the Chicago Board of Education, would be covered by the bill.
A tax cap could further hamper the Chicago board, which has estimated that it could face revenue shortfalls of between $440 million and $620 million in the next two fiscal years plus an estimated $ 1 billion of capital construction needs. A spokesman for the board could not be reached for comment.
Todd Whitestone, a senior vice president at Standard & Poor's Corp., said a tax cap law could have a harmful long-term effect on the board's ability to fund operations. Standard & Poor's on Sept. 6 assigned a negative rating outlook to the board's $75 million of outstanding GO debt, rated BBB, citing future budget pressures.
Lease payments on $459 million of bonds issued on behalf of the board by the Public Building Commission of Chicago would be exempt from the tax cap, but the school board would need approval by the voters before it could commit to make lease payments on future bond issues.
Another major issuer in Cook County, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, would be exempt from the bond referendum provision in the bill for projects currently underway, according to Sen. Topinka. But Harold Downs, the district's treasurer, said he would seek to strengthen current language in the bill so there could be no question about the exemption.
Mr. Downs said the district currently has plans to issue $763 million of GO bonds in the coming years to assist in the completion of an estimated $2.2 billion of ongoing projects. The district's $939 million of outstanding GO debt is rated Aa by Moody's Investors Service and AA by Standard & Poor's.
Both Senate Minority Leader James "Pate" Phillip, R-Wood Dale, and House Minority Leader Lee Daniels, R-Elmhurst, back the tax cap plan for Cook County, including extending it to home-rule governments, according to their spokesmen. A spokesman for Gov. Edgar could not be reached for comment.
The tax cap proposal is the latest in what has been a recent flurry of antitax activity in Chicago and its suburbs. Last month, Democratic legislators from Cook County proposed a local option income tax -- 1% on individuals and 1.6% on corporations -- that could be used to reduce school district property tax collections on a dollar-for-dollar basis.
A backer of that proposal, Rep. Terry Steczo, D-Oak Forest, said the legislation would be introduced at the end of this month.