No way around extending ‘temporary’ tax

Written By By EDEN MARTIN Posted: 05/27/2014, 05:50pm

In a recent column, I argued that it would be a mistake to allow the “temporary” component of the state’s income tax to lapse. Similarly, as much as folks (including me) dislike high property taxes, giving homeowners a property tax refund for political purposes in an election year makes no sense.

Now it appears that the Illinois Legislature may do both.

Pension reform and adequate funding go hand in hand. We haven’t funded our pensions adequately for years, so even if the needed reforms are upheld by the courts — and wholly apart from the other revenue needs of state and local governments — we will still need increased state and local pension funding, not less.

Trimming the costs of government is vitally important, but even deep budget cuts would not save enough money to enable state and local government entities to fund their pensions adequately. The longer we defer adequate funding, the more we increase the future funding burden, as well as the likelihood that some pension funds will fail.

A young colleague of mine asked me: Wouldn’t retention of the “temporary” state income tax increase violate a promise made to voters when that increase was imposed?

To be sure, Gov. Pat Quinn described the income tax increase as “temporary,” as did others. Were those “promises”? Or were they instead statements of intention, based on circumstances that then existed?

The point is arguable, but let’s assume for the moment that they were, literally, promises. I don’t believe that candidates should ever make promises as to what they will do in the future with respect to particular issues; and such promises they do make should not be regarded as binding.

When officials and legislators take office, they pledge to uphold the constitution and do their duty — which includes acting in the public interest as it appears at the time of decision, perhaps years after the campaign is over. The public interest, as the official or legislator sees it at the time of decision, should trump any inconsistent promise, just as contracts against public policy are not enforceable.

Moreover, circumstances change. Facts often look very different years after the campaign, when the time comes to act. Gov. George Ryan campaigned in 1998 on an explicit pledge to oppose expansion of O’Hare Airport. At the time Ryan was being pressured to give such a pledge by voters in DuPage County, who feared more airport noise. But when the time came to act in late 2001, Ryan realized that expansion of O’Hare was in the best interests of the citizens of Chicago and the entire state, so he supported it.

I don’t remember any Chicago newspaper arguing that Ryan’s campaign promise should be kept.

To use an old metaphor, our ship of state is sailing through dangerous waters. The captain sees an ice field ahead and decides to change course. Some passengers object: “You told us you’d continue in the direction we’re headed, so keep going — keep your promise!”

What’s a good captain to do? Keep his “promise” and head into the ice field? Have a debate about contract law with his passengers? Or steer the ship out of danger and deal with complaints later if he’s lucky enough to get everyone safely to shore?

Reform the pensions; and then fund them adequately. That will mean more taxes — not less.


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