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Miller: Sorry, Grover, Illinois docs have more clout

Updated: July 3, 2012 11:14AM



As state legislative support for a cigarette tax increase grew over the past week or so, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and other conservatives stepped into the Illinois fray to try to stop it.

The proposed $1-a-pack cigarette would raise about $700 million, including the federal match, that combined with about $1.6 billion in cutbacks and a $300 million funding shift would close the state Medicaid program’s $2.7 billion budget hole.

In return for backing the higher cigarette tax, Republicans won concessions from the Democrats, particularly when it came to sparing doctors from Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed Medicaid provider rate cuts.

For the past several decades, the House Republicans’ most reliable campaign supporter has been the Illinois State Medical Society. The House GOP always sticks with the docs, no matter what. The medical society was against last year’s workers’ compensation reform agreement that the Senate Republicans, including former gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady, supported.

The House Republicans sided with the doctors and took a hard line against the workers’ comp changes. The decision not to cut physicians’ Medicaid payment rates was a huge win for the House Republicans, so they agreed to put votes on the cigarette tax — enabling it to pass the House Friday on a 60 to 52 vote.

Norquist is probably best known for his anti-tax pledge that most Republican members of Congress have signed and that he aggressively holds them to whenever they start thinking about tax increases.

Norquist first allied himself with tobacco companies in the 1990s as part of the national Republican effort to defeat President Bill Clinton’s health care proposal, which was funded in part by a cigarette tax hike. He has since fought against such tax increases in numerous states.

Cigarette tax hikes are by far the most popular tax increases with the public. A poll of southern Illinois voters taken by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute last year found that 60 percent of them backed a $1-per-pack increase. A statewide poll in 2010 found that 74 percent of Illinoisans, including 71 percent of Republicans, supported such an increase.

But Joshua Culling, the state affairs manager for Norquist’s group, wrote that the House GOP could “ruin the GOP brand in the state for a generation” if it backed a higher cigarette tax.

“(House Minority Leader) Tom Cross seems content to cut a deal that will further imperil Illinois’ economic outlook while simultaneously eroding the national party’s messaging on the toxicity of Obamacare,” Culling wrote.

Since April, Cross (R-Oswego), at several public events outside Springfield and Chicago, has urged that President Obama’s health care reform bill be repealed and said he was adamantly opposed to any moves in Illinois to implement that law. That stance led directly to the death of a bipartisan effort by state Rep. Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) to set up a health insurance exchange in Illinois.

But Cross’ attempts at appeasing his party’s right wing apparently didn’t go far enough. In a letter to supporters, the Illinois Policy Institute’s director singled out Cross for criticism, saying the Medicaid proposal “destroys the credibility of leaders who talk about economic freedom only to vote in favor of more heavy-handed government.”

And the United Republican Fund, one of the oldest and most conservative GOP organizations in the state, sent out a press release about the Medicaid compromise and the cigarette tax hike.

“The time has come for legislators to stop being the unwitting (or intentional) co-conspirators in the slow demise of our great state. The time has come for leadership and courage. For statesmen instead of politicians. For competence instead of compromise,” the release says.

The Republican Party’s more pragmatic, governing wing has been in full retreat for the past few years as national politics has invaded state government as part of the GOP’s messaging against the president from Illinois. That aggressive national push has resulted in much more Illinois Statehouse partisanship, so some lawmakers who supported cigarette tax increases in the past were reluctant to do so this time.

But in Illinois, some things still trump national party interests. The state medical society is one of those things. Sorry, Grover. You may have all the Washington, D.C., Republicans scared out of their wits, but things are different here.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.



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