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Pritzker’s graduated income tax plan is easy to like, tough for GOP to fight

Gov. J.B. Pritzker unveils his graduated income tax plan during a press conference in the governor's office at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield earlier this month. | Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

Democrats often propose ideas that take forever to explain and are often difficult for the masses to understand. That wasn’t the case last week.

“Under my fair tax plan,” Gov. JB Pritzker tweeted, “97 percent of taxpayers get tax relief and the wealthy will pay their fair share.”

It’s gonna be really tough to top a succinct message like that, particularly when its chief supporter is worth $3.2 billion and just gleefully spent $170 million on his campaign and is willing to spend big on this.


The governor’s new graduated income tax plan is obviously designed to appeal to the most people possible. And 97 percent is almost everybody.

The dirty truth is that human beings tend to prefer taxes which don’t apply to them. It’s really no surprise that 72 percent of Illinoisans backed a progressive income tax in the most recent Paul Simon Public Policy Institute poll taken last year.

So, the tiny 2.7 percent of income tax filers who will pay more taxes under Pritzker’s plan — and who, unlike in the past, have little hope of outspending the governor if it goes to the voters for approval — will have their work cut out for them.

One of the early responses from opponents was to attempt to scare people into believing rich people will pack up and leave, even though one of our biggest exit problems is the tens of thousands of kids who leave for out-of-state colleges every year and never come back.

Other pro-business types claimed part of Pritzker’s proposal was a “millionaire’s tax,” which actually polls even better than a graduated tax. They can’t beat Pritzker that way.

Democratic state legislators were mostly silent. That’s often the case with big proposals. Legislators are, for the most part, naturally cautious creatures who will want to be assured they can do this without harming their districts and, in turn, themselves.

As with the recent minimum wage hike, the governor can stress to legislators that his tax plan is a “core Democratic Party value,” and that he will have their backs if they’re attacked. This won’t be an easy roll call, but things like infrastructure projects will help smooth things over.

The House Republicans have been a hard “heck no” for weeks on this topic. But the Senate Republicans left the door open to negotiations.

“Without guaranteed protections for middle-class families, we are opposed to the governor’s $3.4 billion tax increase,” the caucus statement read. They wouldn’t say what those “guaranteed protections” might be, but I was told that the caucus is open to “exploring” the topic.

Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady has always been a guy who wants to be at the table. And he likely knows he can’t stop that constitutional amendment in his chamber (the real fight will probably be in the House).

And, remember, 97 percent of taxpayers will get some relief. It’s not much, but sneer at a $271 annual tax cut for a family of four earning $61,000 at your own peril. That’s a decent credit card payment or two, and families in that bracket aren’t exactly flush with cash. Anyone who is a hard “no” on this can be portrayed as opposing tax relief for almost everybody on behalf of the rich.

So, why not try to make his caucus look reasonable and bend the proposal his direction?

What about altering the rates, or formally tying the top tax rate to the lowest in the same way the corporate rate is currently tied to the personal rate in order to prevent lawmakers from soaking big business without also raising taxes on individuals? Or, how about allowing married couples who file joint federal returns to file separate Illinois returns to avoid triggering higher brackets? Or what about dumping the proposed one-point increase in the corporate rate, which would only bring in about $23 million anyway?

From what I’m told, Gov. Pritzker is not only eager to talk with the Republicans, he doesn’t expect them to put a single vote on the amendment. Adding some Republican ideas would undoubtedly make his case stronger with moderate Democratic legislators and with voters. Does that mean Republicans would be used as cover? Of course, but it also means that the Republicans will have made some important changes. It’s called governing.

Pritzker’s plan is so easy to like that, unless they’re absolutely sure they can kill this thing, the Republicans need to get to the bargaining table before it’s too late.

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