An excited state Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago) telephoned Sunday morning to tell me that after seven years, he had finally gotten a public school funding reform bill out of committee and onto the Illinois Senate floor.
"Can I quit now?" Meeks said, noting that the measure had passed the Senate.
I asked about the chances of the bill even getting called for a vote in the House.
"That's up to Speaker (Michael) Madigan," Meeks said. "I'm a member of the Senate. I can't do anything about the House."
What about Gov. Pat Quinn?
"He's on board," Meeks said, although the governor was also backing a separate bill to increase the state income tax. "I've been talking to him nearly every day for two weeks, and he's supporting my bill."
Meeks reminded me that during his initial run for public office in 2002, he had stopped by the editorial offices of this newspaper to announce he had only one goal if elected to the Illinois Senate: School funding reform.
At the time, I noted that promise had been made by many other candidates for the state Legislature during the previous decade. All had been elected. None had even managed to get a bill called for a vote on the Senate or House floors.
Meeks reminded me Sunday that he had promised to be different. He vowed never to quit until he got the bill before the full Senate for a vote.
He tried several times in recent years. But each time his proposal was blocked in committee by legislative leaders and Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
"The difference this time is that the state is facing an $11 billion budget deficit," Meeks said. "Blagojevich is gone. Legislators had to do something. My argument to (Senate President John Cullerton) was that instead of passing a tax increase that would just fill the budget gap but fail to provide enough money to actually make improvements in Illinois, we needed to pass something that we could be proud of. We needed to be able to tell our constituents that we really did something to make their lives better."
S.B. 750 would increase the state income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent. It would impose sales taxes on a wide range of services that had previously escaped the tax, such as movie theater tickets, dry cleaning and Internet sales. And it would also provide property tax relief to homeowners who are being gouged by skyrocketing tax bills.
Although I had argued for such a tax bill for nearly 20 years, I had not written much about it in recent months. Since the crash of the national economy and the impeachment of Blagojevich, I had begun questioning whether the time had passed for such a remedy. Still, I congratulated Meeks on fulfilling his campaign pledge.
Less than 10 hours after Meeks called me, his tax plan was killed in a House committee.
And on Monday, the senator was not a happy man.
"You have been campaigning for a tax hike for 20 years, and nothing has happened," Meeks said. "Why? What's the one thing that has remained constant in those 20 years? Michael Madigan as a leader in the House. Everybody else in leadership is gone. If Madigan wanted this bill passed, it would have been passed."
Meeks was also disappointed in Quinn's leadership.
"At 7:30 Sunday night, Quinn held a press conference to announce that the tax bill was dead," Meeks said. "The Legislature was in session past midnight. So with more than four hours to go, he quit. That's like quitting in a basketball game in the fourth quarter. The Orlando Magic were down 22 points in the first half, and they came back to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. They didn't give up. But Gov. Quinn walked off the court in the fourth quarter.
"He should have called each legislator whose vote he needed into his office individually and asked them what they needed in exchange for their vote," Meeks said. "If they wanted him to appear in their districts, he should have said he would march in parades or show up at a town meeting. If they wanted his support for some other piece of legislation, he should have promised to do what he could to make sure the bill passed. If they had a special project, he should have promised to fund it.
"Instead, he did nothing. What he did do was cave in to Michael Madigan every step of the way. Quinn said he wanted a budget bill passed before a capital spending bill was passed. Madigan said he wanted a capital spending bill done first, and Quinn gave in.
"Quinn said he wanted to permanently raise the income tax from 3 percent to 4.5 percent. Madigan said he wanted it to be a temporary income tax hike. Quinn gave in.
"Quinn wanted to increase the personal exemption on the income tax from $2,000 to $6,000 and Madigan said he couldn't pass that bill. So Quinn came down to $3,000.
"The governor acquiesced to the demands of Speaker Madigan every step of the way, and in the end what did he get? Nothing," Meeks said. "And Mayor Daley didn't do anything, either. The mayor continually says the Chicago schools need more money and the state should do something.
"But he didn't hold a single news conference during this legislative session calling on Chicago officials to support a tax increase. I didn't hear about a single state legislator from Chicago getting a call from the mayor. He did nothing."
What Meeks still fails to understand is that this is not about the schoolchildren or the taxpayers or the quality of life in the state of Illinois.
The outcome of this game was fixed before the players took the court.
Madigan won. Everybody else lost.
Phil Kadner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (708) 633-6787.