SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn challenged lawmakers Thursday to approve a $1-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax and accept major cuts in the state's health care program for the poor, but many Democrats and Republicans view the plan as more a work in progress than a final deal.
The Democratic governor has long positioned himself as a champion for the little guy, but he found himself in the position of pushing a politically unpalatable plan to "rescue" the state's vast Medicaid system or watch it "implode."
Among Quinn's suggested cuts are eliminating a discount prescription program for seniors and people with disabilities as well as removing thousands of patients from Medicaid by scaling back who is eligible. The governor also called for getting rid of dental and chiropractic care for adults and limiting what the state would cover for people with HIV and cancer.
"If we don't do this, the whole system will collapse," Quinn said, adding later, "It'll be broke. It'll be bankrupt."
Quinn will face tough resistance to cutting health care benefits that have been in place for years, and passing a cigarette tax hike will be far from a slam dunk in the General Assembly, where every seat is on the ballot in November.
The Senate has passed a cigarette tax hike twice in recent years only to see the legislation stall in the House. Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, again voiced support for the idea Thursday.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, will keep working with the governor, but finding a solution will require a "bipartisan coalition to get it all done," said Steve Brown, the speaker's spokesman.
Asked about the cigarette tax increase, Brown said, "I think anybody would say that you're going to need a lot of other pieces of the puzzle to come together before you find a coalition to pass a revenue increase."
Democrats control the House and Senate, but they already face possible backlash from voters upset that they approved a 67 percent personal income tax rate increase last year.
Beyond that, Democrats represent many of the people who get health care from Medicaid. These lawmakers are being asked to vote for another tax hike and still watch severe cuts to services unfold.
"I would like for the governor to please explain to me how these cuts are going to save money, how denying people access to care, causing them to be sick longer, not being able to see a doctor, how is that saving money?" asked Rep. Mary Flowers, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Health Care Access and Availability.
Flowers said she eventually might support a higher tax on smokes, but not unless the overall plan is improved.
"We're talking about people's lives," Flowers said. "This is a budgetary problem that we're having, and what we're doing because of this budgetary problem is causing people to choose between life or death."
Wringing savings out of Medicaid is a major part of Quinn's proposed state budget. The governor has called for finding an estimated $2.7 billion in cuts and savings from the state's nearly $15 billion Medicaid program. A working group that consisted of lawmakers and members of his administration found nearly $1.4 billion in potential cuts, but there was not total agreement.
Quinn pushed ahead with his ideas Thursday, proposing a cut in reimbursement rates for hospitals, nursing homes and other providers of care in an amount that would save $675 million. That's a hit that many in the health care industry already have decried as too much.
Quinn said the cigarette tax hike can generate $675 million in state and federal revenue and that it is an integral part of how to reach the $2.7 billion goal.
"If we don't deal with the $2.7 billion gap this coming fiscal year, then all that money will have to be taken out of other priorities of state government, things like our schools and things like our public safety and things like our construction on the highways and byways of Illinois," Quinn said. "Our capital program will be put in great jeopardy."
But leading Republicans on the issue — Rep. Patti Bellock, R-Hinsdale, and Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon — said they don't believe Quinn will follow through on his threat of massive cuts. The two legislators also said Republicans are prepared to stand by Quinn's initial call of $2.7 billion in cuts instead of generating more money for Medicaid through a tax increase.
Democratic House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie rejected the GOP notion that Democrats want the tax hike to avoid painful cuts.
"There is no way to solve this problem without causing pain," Currie said. "The question becomes, 'Do we really want to completely destroy the safety net for a very vulnerable population? The cigarette tax will at least minimize some" of that pain.