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Gov. J.B. Pritzker met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Thursday, February 21, 2019 to talk about his first budget. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

EDITORIAL: A three-month sprint to a fairer tax for Illinois

The way we see it, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s got three months.

He either pushes approval of a graduated income tax through the Illinois General Assembly this spring, the first step toward achieving a fairer long-term solution to the state’s financial problems, or he’ll have no choice but to accept a host of unpopular alternatives, such as expanding the sales tax to include services and going after government workers’ pension benefits.

In his first state budget address, delivered Wednesday, Pritzker demanded nothing hard from almost anybody. That hardly seems possible in a state contending with a $134 billion unfunded pension liability, but the governor proposed instead a budget full of the dodge-ball games that got our state into this mess to begin with.

His budget, for the fiscal year that begins July 1, relies on hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from taxes on sources that don’t even yet exist, such as sports betting and legalized recreational marijuana.

He called for more borrowing, though he didn’t call it borrowing. He called it a “small-scale pension bond.”

He called for putting off until tomorrow pension fund payments that are due today, though he phrased that more blandly, too. He said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it.”

What Pritzker did not do, as part of a political strategy that we can only hope pans out, was propose an increase in the current flat income tax, an expansion of the sales tax, a tax on higher retirement incomes, or any further effort to reduce the automatic yearly growth of pension benefits.

All of these would be reasonable sources of revenue and savings in a state that can’t go on as it has.

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Pritzker: Graduated tax must advance this spring

• Read the text of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s first budget address

• Read the 2020 budget proposal

Pritzker also called for only the most modest cuts in state spending, though here we’d say he’s on firm ground. After four years of Gov. Bruce Rauner, during which time state universities and social services were debilitated by reduced and erratic funding, reparative spending is justified. Pritzker’s budget includes money to make make college more affordable and early childhood education more accessible.

What Pritzker is betting on — and why he deserves a little time before his critics pile on — is his ability to bring a progressive income tax to Illinois, replacing the flat tax, in just 18 months. That would be the fairest way for Illinois to generate new revenue, demanding more of the wealthiest individuals corporations.

Thirty-four other states, including four of the five states that border Illinois, already have a progressive income tax.

A progressive income tax in Illinois, though, will take a constitutional amendment. First, the Legislature must vote, by a three-fifths majority in both houses, to put the question on the ballot in November 2020. Then a majority of the voters must approve the measure. If they do so, the new tax rates will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021.

In a meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board, the governor said he will press the Legislature to approve a graduated income tax before it adjourns in May, along with companion legislation setting out the new tax rates. He also said both House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton have promised their support.

However this plays out, what Illinois can’t afford to lose is a sense of urgency. Something has to give, and quickly. A progressive income tax is the best way to go, but if that option should fall through — and we should know by June — Pritzker should be prepared to support less palatable alternatives.

Will a progressive income tax, by taxing the wealthiest people in Illinois at higher rates, spare the middle class from paying more? We don’t know. Illinois has such a big a revenue hole to fill. Let’s see the rate brackets.

But it will be, no matter what, a fairer tax.

Go for it, Governor.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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