Seth Perlman, Associated Press
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — What a state takes away, it also can give back.
Less than a year after raising personal and corporate income taxes, Illinois officials are now considering a $250 million package of tax breaks for several prominent businesses threatening to leave the state, including Sears and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. To make the measure more palatable, individual taxpayers also would get a dollop of relief.
The idea of giving tax breaks to companies is a hard sell in the state Legislature when many families are struggling and the Occupy Wall Street movement is reflecting anger at corporate interests. But advocates say if Illinois doesn't take action, the businesses and their thousands of jobs will be lured away by states that are eager to take advantage.
"If we don't do it, another state will. That's the reality of the world in which we live," said Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat who is chairman of the Illinois House Revenue Committee.
Illinois' tax dilemma is a collision between two different goals: Balancing the budget and avoiding the image of a state that's bad for business. And in the process, officials want to avoid being exploited by companies making threats, perhaps empty ones, to flee Illinois.
When 2011 began, the state faced a deficit projected to hit $15 billion. The Democratic governor and Democratic majorities in the Legislature decided an income tax increase had to be part of the response to that gap.
They bumped the individual tax rate to 5 percent, up from 3 percent originally, and the corporate rate to 7 percent, from 4.8 percent. The increase, most of which is temporary and will expire in stages over the next 15 years, is supposed to generate about $6.8 billion in its first year.
Other states pounced. New Jersey, Indiana, Wisconsin and more began promoting themselves to Illinois businesses. They succeeded in drawing some companies away, despite protestations from Illinois officials that the state still has a low overall tax burden.
In the months since then, the same Democratic governor and Democratic legislators have passed measures to cut business costs for workers' compensation and unemployment insurance costs. Now a package of tax breaks is on the table. The measure passed the Senate on Tuesday and was being debated by the House.
Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, sees the latest actions as acknowledgement that officials went too far with the January tax increase.
"They overreached," Whitley said. "They're trying to bring the pendulum back to a more middle ground and they're trying to send a strong message to employers that elected officials are not oblivious to their outcry."
The tax package would renew a $15 million income tax credit and a break on local property taxes for Sears Holdings Corp., which has its headquarters in the Chicago suburbs.
The proposal also cuts income taxes about $85 million for CME Group Inc. and CBOE Holdings Inc., which run the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board Options Exchange.
The companies complain that they are still taxed on every transaction they handle, as if all business is still conducted by shouting men on trading floors, when most of their trades are now done electronically by buyers and sellers who have no connection to Illinois. The legislation being discussed would tax the exchanges on only 27.54 percent of their revenues.
Some legislators question whether Sears, CME and CBOE would really uproot their operations and leave Illinois. They worry that giving the companies what they want will encourage similar demands from other businesses.
"What's going to stop the next big company from putting a gun to our head with the same type of threat?" said Rep. Mary Flowers, a Chicago Democrat.
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