Senate President Don Harmon reaps campaign funds from nursing home industry, backs its bid for property tax relief

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon is backing legislation that would provide tens of millions of dollars in property tax breaks for nursing homes in Cook County after accepting nearly $2 million in campaign contributions from their industry trade group, including more than $700,000 in the past year.

A political action committee for the Health Care Council of Illinois is one of Harmon’s biggest campaign contributors in recent years. It represents nursing home interests and is lobbying members of the General Assembly to pass the tax relief measure in coming days.

According to Illinois State Board of Elections records, the group recently gave:

  • $10,000 to Friends of Don Harmon for State Senate on Oct. 19.
  • $100,000 to that Harmon political account on Sept. 30.
  • $5,000 on Aug. 23 to the state Senate Democratic fund known as ISDF that Harmon runs.

Those contributions followed the General Assembly’s passage in May — and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s subsequent veto on Aug. 11 — of a portion of legislation supported by Harmon that would change the way private, for-profit nursing homes are assessed for property taxes in Cook County.

In Chicago and the inner-ring suburbs, those nursing homes are classified as commercial property, which translates to higher real estate taxes. The legislation would change their status to residential property, lowering their taxes by millions.

Harmon, D-Oak Park, would not comment.

His spokesman John Patterson said, “Legislative decisions are always made based on what is in the best interests of the public and to ensure all people and organizations are treated fairly under the law.”

Ron Nunziato, the health care council’s senior director of policy and regulatory affairs, said Harmon has been a longtime “advocate and supporter” of nursing homes. Asked about the contributions, Nunziato said, “I don’t think one has anything to do with the other.”

State Sen. Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago, filed an amendment May 19 that included that tax reclassification for Cook County nursing homes and worked it into a larger bill dealing with other tax issues, including property tax exemptions for World War II veterans and “surviving spouses of fallen first-responders.”

State Sen. Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago.

Patterson said she didn’t file the provision at Harmon’s direction, but his legislative staff was involved in its drafting. Villanueva didn’t return calls.

Later that day, the entire package was unanimously approved by state senators including Harmon. The Illinois House approved it days later, and it was sent to Gov. J.B. Pritzker to sign into law.

“If industries feel like they need this, they need to” discuss it “in the open,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said. “These are not things to be thrown into omnibus bills late at night, when people don’t have time to read it.

“The governor’s been clear that the days of special interests getting deals are over.”

Part of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s veto letter.

Part of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s veto letter.

Patterson said: “That characterization does not reflect reality. This is an issue that was considered over several sessions and ultimately included in the final legislation with the consent of both chambers and both parties. Members were briefed. It was brought up during the sponsor’s remarks in the Senate. The House approved the language nearly a week later. It passed both chambers with no opposition. There were no surprises.”

Pritzker killed the nursing home provision in August, using an amendatory veto. In a letter to legislators, the governor wrote that this is “a property tax break” that “passes that cost on to suburban Cook County homeowners and small businesses, with the greatest impact felt in the south suburbs.

“That change will have the effect of raising property taxes on homeowners who are already overburdened,” Pritzker wrote, “and risks driving some residents into foreclosure while simultaneously threatening local school funding.”

Pritzker suggested that some legislators did not know the provision was in the package they voted on, writing, “It is difficult for me to imagine that the General Assembly, had they been aware of this aspect of the bill, would feel any differently” than he does.

Nunziato said every other county in Illinois treats nursing homes as residential property.

“We want to be treated fairly and justly in the tax system,” he said.

Without this tax relief, “We’re worried about facilities closing,” he said.

Nunziato said the measure could save the 300 or so nursing homes in Cook County a total of about $50 million a year that he said could translate into better care for their elderly and infirm residents.

Nunziato said his group wants the legislature to override Pritzker’s veto, which would require the approval of three-fifths of the members of each chamber.

“We’re reaching out to members of the General Assembly to advocate for these changes,” Nunziato said.

Asked whether Harmon supports an override, Nunziato said, “I believe he is.”

A source familiar with the process said Harmon’s Senate chief of staff Jacob Butcher “has indicated a very strong support for it.”

Jacob Butcher.

Illinois secretary of state

Butcher once represented the health care council as a lobbyist, and his law firm has been paid more than $250,000 by Harmon’s campaign funds for consulting work since 2020, state records show.

Asked about Harmon’s stance on a potential veto override, Patterson said, “We are waiting to see what the House does or does not do.” Such a move would have to begin in that chamber, then move to the Senate.

If there is an override vote, it would come within the next couple of weeks, but the chief sponsor of the overarching legislation said that’s looking unlikely.

“In talking to members of the caucus, they want more discussion and research on this topic,” said state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego. “I think that they want to pause” and “look at it holistically how we can provide assistance to those nursing homes.”

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch “is going to follow the will of the caucus, so we’ll know more once we have a better understanding of the status of negotiations with the bill sponsors in the House and Senate,” a Welch spokeswoman said.

Welch’s campaign fund got a $50,000 contribution from the health care council on Sept. 22, state records show. The group has given the Hillside Democrat $1.2 million since 2019. Senate President Don Harmon reaps campaign funds from nursing home industry, backs its bid for property tax relief

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