Dark money-funded groups plan fight over Illinois progressive income tax

SHARE Dark money-funded groups plan fight over Illinois progressive income tax

Gov. J.B. Pritzker | Sun-Times file photo

Two “dark money” groups are stepping up to separately promote and attack the new governor’s agenda.

“Think Big Illinois,” a brand new 501(c)(4) organization which doesn’t have to disclose its donors, will be supporting Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose 2018 campaign slogans included “Think big.” The organization will be headed by Quentin Fulks, who served as Pritzker’s deputy campaign manager.


“A $15 minimum wage is the first in a series of progressive policies Think Big Illinois will advocate for in the coming months,” a press release says.

The group appears to be the likely conduit for Pritzker and others to fund a public push for the progressive income tax if it makes it onto the 2020 ballot. Both legislative chambers first have to approve the proposal with three-fifths majorities, and then voters get a crack at it. Neither step is guaranteed.

Defeating that progressive income tax proposal at the ballot box is now the main goal of another dark money not-for-profit group which has been around for years. The Coalition for Jobs, Growth and Prosperity launched a new website last week called “Ideas for Illinois.” The website is fairly innocuous so far, but the people who run it say their ultimate goal is to become the prime conduit for opposition to the governor’s progressive income tax if and/or when it reaches the ballot.

The coalition was founded by Chicago businessman Ron Gidwitz and former Illinois Manufacturers’ Association honcho Greg Baise in 2004, and has since raised $30 million for various projects. Gidwitz is now an ambassador, so he’s been replaced by his brother Jim. Day-to-day operations will be handled by Jason Heffley, who ran Republican Erika Harold’s attorney general race last year. Mike Zolnierowicz, who was Gov. Bruce Rauner’s first chief of staff and left during the first round of staff purges to work with Baise, will oversee the operation.

It’s expected that if Pritzker can get a “fair tax” on the ballot next year he’ll put his money where his mouth is to pass it. And as we saw last year, the man can spend money faster than anyone outside the Pentagon.

Baise will try to tap into the resulting reaction of fear and loathing by upper income types to try and counter Pritzker’s spending. It’s a pretty good bet that the money will be there. The top task of wealthy Illinoisans for the past decade, including Bruce Rauner’s election, was stopping a graduated income tax from being imposed here.

Gov. Pritzker ran on a promise of taxing the wealthy, so he likely interprets his 16-point win over Rauner as a mandate to get that done.

Baise’s group, however, ran some Election Day polling which asked voters: “Do you support a progressive income tax – that is, a tax system that imposes a lower tax rate on low-income earners, while those with higher incomes pay a higher tax rate?” According to the We Ask America poll, 53 percent of Illinois voters supported the tax.

Now, you may or may not agree with the poll’s wording. A slight change here and there and maybe the idea would’ve received more support (or less). The Pritzker campaign tested dozens of ideas before settling on the billionaire candidate saying he only wanted to raise taxes on people like him.

A state constitutional amendment requires the support of three-fifths of those voting on the question or a majority of those voting in the election, so 53 percent likely wouldn’t be enough. And Colorado voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment just last year to increase taxes on people with incomes over $150,000 by a 53.5 to 46.4 margin.

The opponents’ attack will include the easy layup of exploiting Illinoisans’ distrust of their state government, particularly its inability to balance its budget over the years despite tax hikes. A hefty dose of messaging against the unpopular House Speaker Michael Madigan will undoubtedly be part of their play.

Baise and his associates do not want to get involved in Republican Party-type issues and just focus on beating back the progressive tax.

If President Donald Trump is on the ticket next year, not a whole lot of money will be funneled into Republican state legislative races here because it would be so fruitless. And there are no statewide races except for U.S. Senate. But a progressive income tax ballot question could very well open up a whole lot of wealthy wallets, so, if nothing else, they have a decent business plan.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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