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Democrats should go it alone on cigarette tax increase, Senate GOP leader says

(MCT) — Illinois Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno suggested Monday that if Democrats want a cigarette tax increase to stave off some health care cuts, Democrats should provide the votes.

The comments came as the legislative leader from Lemont credited Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn for advancing plans to deal with pension and Medicaid costs but said Democrats should focus on spending cuts instead of tax increases.

Last week, Quinn proposed a $2.7 billion package of cuts and revenue for Medicaid, the state's health care program for the poor. Included in the governor's plan is a $1-per-pack increase in the state's cigarette tax to generate $675 million in state and federal dollars. The governor originally had called for $2.7 billion in cuts to Medicaid.

"The problem is that it is a revenue solution to a spending problem. We're looking for money rather than looking at the spending side, and it's that default position that has gotten us exactly into the mess we're in," Radogno told a City Club of Chicago audience.

Noting that Democrats, who control the General Assembly, last year passed a state income tax increase without any Republican support, Radogno said, "They can pass the cigarette tax increase on their own if that's what they want to do."

On pensions, Radogno credited Quinn for coming up with what she called a "bold proposal" aimed at moving state workers into a system that raises the retirement age, includes higher out-of-pocket costs for employees and scales back cost-of-living increases.

But she said Republicans oppose Quinn's push to shift $1 billion in pension costs from the state onto local school districts outside Chicago.

The governor's cost-shifting proposal followed questions by several Democrats over what they called the unfairness of Chicago taxpayers paying for city teacher pensions as well as contributing tax dollars to pay for suburban and downstate educators' retirement.

"Frankly, the issue is a lot more complex than that, particularly the equity issue," Radogno said.

"What we have to look at is the total (state) funding for education that goes in to the city of Chicago," she said. "Chicago is treated differently in a number of areas, in fact, favorably in a number of (funding) areas relative to downstate and suburban schools, and those need to be addressed at the same time there's any discussion about a shift in responsibility for pension costs."

Radogno said there is merit in noting that teachers are not state employees and that local school districts would have "some skin in the game" over pension costs.

"I'm willing to have that discussion, but it's going to have to be a discussion separate and apart from this pension discussion," she said. "The savings from the shift are not significant enough to derail it over this issue. It should be set aside."

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