SPRINGFIELD — Just three months removed from the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in the nation’s history, divisive political ads could soon begin populating Illinois residents’ screens once again, this time relating to a “fair tax” – or a “jobs tax” – depending on whose ad is being seen.
At issue is Illinois’ income tax structure. The state Constitution allows lawmakers to set only a single, flat income tax rate regardless of income. It currently sits at 4.95 percent.
But Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker wants to adopt a “graduated” income tax structure, which charges higher rates to higher income earners, an effort staunchly opposed by Republican lawmakers.
“Perhaps the fact that the heaviest burdens would fall on taxpayers like myself under a new fair tax system will convince many of you that I am proposing this path forward because I truly believe it’s what is best for Illinois,” Pritzker, whose net worth is estimated at $3.2 billion, said in his budget address Wednesday.
This change would require a constitutional amendment, a process in which the governor plays no formal role. Instead, three-fifths of both the Illinois Senate (36 votes) and House (71 votes) would have to approve the placement of the constitutional amendment on the 2020 general election ballot, and voters would have to approve it for ratification.
State Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat who is carrying the amendment in the Senate, said he expects the Legislature to begin its role in the process soon — and he expects a fight.
“I’m hoping to start talking about this in earnest when we’re back in Springfield next week,” Harmon said. “This is certainly going to require a full-fledged campaign to convince voters to ratify the amendment. I expect we’ll be joined on both sides of the debate with vigor and resources.”
At this point, however, the constitutional amendment would give the Legislature the ability to change only the income tax structure — it wouldn’t set the actual income tax rate.
No specific rate structure has been proposed, and Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh did not give a timeline as to when it could be expected.
“As the discussion on the amendment moves forward, the rate structure will be negotiated with the General Assembly before a vote takes place so the public has a full and transparent understanding of the way forward,” she said.
Despite a lack of details, politicians and interest groups are rushing to define the measure in the minds of the voters who will have the ultimate say as to whether it becomes law.
Some supporters, including Pritzker, Harmon and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago, are calling the amendment a “fair tax” proposal.
Detractors, including a handful of Republicans and one Democrat who have signed onto a non-binding resolution opposing the amendment, are calling it a “jobs tax.”
“The progressive income tax is a code phrase for a massive tax increase, and that is the last thing Illinois needs right now,” said Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, the resolution’s chief sponsor.
Two dark-money organizations structured to keep their donors private appear to be adopting these terms in their messaging efforts as well.
In a recently launched digital ad, Ideas Illinois — a conservative 501(c)(4) group — has positioned itself as “on a mission” to put Illinois on a “sustainable” path through job creation, spending cuts and economic growth.
On the other side of the spectrum is Think Big Illinois, a left-leaning 501(c)(4) group which includes Pritzker on its list of donors, according to CEO Quentin Fulks, a former deputy manager of the Pritzker campaign.
Think Big’s recently launched digital ad touts a “fair tax” and equates Ideas Illinois’ “mission” with former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s “stubborn” leadership. Fulks said Think Big will be closely monitoring the fight for a graduated tax.
“I think we’re going to do whatever it takes to get the job done and to make sure that we’re getting the word out there that the graduated income tax is the best way to solve the problems in Illinois,” he said. “At this moment, we don’t have plans like a TV ad ready to go, but it is something that is in our arsenal if we need to use it. … As long as we’re able to sustain it, we’ll stay up on TV and on digital doing everything we can.”
The Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank whose research wing is structured as a 501(c)(3), calls the proposal “2019’s worst policy idea for Illinois’ middle class.” The group also launched advertisements against the tax through its Illinois Policy wing, which is structured as a 501(c)(4).
Republican legislative leaders in the House and Senate have pledged to fight the amendment as well.
“My caucus is united in its opposition to the Democrats’ tax increase on Illinois families and employers. Higher taxes won’t solve our problems, nor have they ever as history has shown,” House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said in a statement.
Harmon, on the other hand, said he believes the voters will be on board with the amendment.
“The research we’ve done to date certainly suggests that people understand that the fair tax would allow us to ask people who earn more to pay more and give us the tool to reduce taxes on the large majority of Illinois taxpayers,” he said.
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