No cigarette tax means cuts for schools

Local schools could face big cuts to the money they use for the operation of buses and special education programs unless lawmakers vote to raise cigarette taxes by $1 a pack.

That move could be unlikely, though.

The Illinois Senate approved a cigarette tax hike more than a year ago, but since then, House lawmakers haven’t shown much interest in doing the same.

Under the budget lawmakers sent to Gov. Pat Quinn, schools would take a more than $300 million hit for specific programs without the tax increase. The Illinois Senate on Wednesday met briefly and prepared to take up a number of budget-related proposals today. Among them is a controversial plan for the state to take out $3.7 billion in loans to pay to state workers’ retirement systems.

Even with the proposed borrowing and a number of other budgetary maneuvers, the state faces a $13 billion gap in revenues in the coming fiscal year.

State Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, said he doesn’t like the idea of higher cigarette taxes, but remains open to the concept. With the legislative session winding down, however, and a handful of lawmakers already leaving Springfield, a vote doesn’t appear imminent.

“I don’t think there’s sufficient support for that,” Bradley said.

Illinois State Board of Education spokesman Matt Vanover said schools are already having financial troubles because the state isn’t sending money on time. Cuts to what’s promised could hurt even more.

“Districts are facing a difficult time as it is,” Vanover said.

Still, some House lawmakers remained steadfast in their opposition to a cigarette tax hike. Critics suggest smokers will head to neighboring states to buy cigarettes if taxes go up.

State Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, said he opposed the plan. He argued Democrats tied the tax to schools in an effort to gain more support.

“I understand why they did it,” he said.

But it hasn’t worked so far. While the Senate approved the tax hike in April of last year, the House has since mostly ignored it.

Quinn nevertheless Wednesday reiterated his plea that lawmakers approve it. He said that in addition to the money more taxes could make the state, higher prices could keep teens from smoking.

“Young people don’t start smoking if they are discouraged from the price of cigarettes,” Quinn said.

source: pantagraph.com

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