Expect hard push from Pritzker for progressive income tax

SHARE Expect hard push from Pritzker for progressive income tax

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

Freshman Rep. Terra Costa Howard (D-Glen Ellyn) was reportedly none too pleased when Think Big Illinois began running TV ads in her district.

Think Big Illinois is the dark money group created to support Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s progressive income tax proposal. It started running ads in late March in four individual House districts a couple of days after an opposing dark money group called Ideas Illinois targeted the same Democratic House members: Costa Howard, Monica Bristow, Jonathan Carroll and Mary Edly-Allen.


One of the Ideas Illinois ads ended by telling viewers: “Tell Terra Costa Howard to vote ‘No’ on the jobs tax.” A pro-Pritzker Think Big Illinois ad told viewers: “Tell Terra Costa Howard to vote ‘Yes’ and put the middle class first.”

None of the four Democrats were given a heads-up about the pro-tax ads. And word got around that Rep. Costa Howard wasn’t happy, so a Think Big staffer reached out to her. I’m told she didn’t specifically demand that the ad be taken down, but the group pulled the spot off of cable TV almost right away.

Costa Howard scored a huge victory when she defeated Rep. Peter Breen last November. Breen (R-Lombard) is a nationally known pro-life attorney and by last year had become the House Republican floor leader. But Costa Howard beat him by a solid seven points.

Normally, legislators like Costa Howard are encouraged by staff to not stick out their necks on controversial legislation. Costa Howard voted against the $15 minimum wage bill, as did Reps. Bristow and Edly-Allen. The idea is to hold the seat for the party and let other, more politically secure members pick up the slack on the tough stuff.

But the Democrats have 74 seats and the governor needs 71 House votes to put his graduated income tax proposal on the ballot. Since the House Republicans are universally opposed, he can’t afford to lose more than three Democratic votes.

While the purpose behind the ads was to defend fellow Democrats against attacks from the other side, the spots can be perceived as Democrats being pressured in their own home districts by a billionaire governor to “put the middle class first” and vote for his tax plan. A vote against that plan, of course, would be perceived in that frame as a vote against “the middle class.”

Also, governors tend to inform legislators when they so much as travel to their districts. It’s seen as a common courtesy. Running TV ads without notice like this is simply unheard-of.

Even so, the other three Democrats said it was no big deal. Rep. Jonathan Carroll (D-Northbrook) said he has “no issues with the Think Big ads.” Carroll is the most liberal of the four. Rep. Carroll said he “appreciate(s) them engaging my constituents on an important issue.”

Rep. Mary Edly-Allen (D-Libertyville) said “I welcome the efforts to provide cover in my district on the issue.” The freshman claimed the local response to the ad “has been very positive and I look forward to continued discussions.”

Rep. Monica Bristow (D-Godfrey) echoed her colleagues, saying she “welcomed” the ads, and claiming “I think it’s important that my constituents hear the other side of the issue.”

And how are things going in the House? So far, House Speaker Michael Madigan hasn’t done much more than informally poll his members. He does that to see how many votes he (and the governor) will eventually need to find.

As of last week I was told, “We don’t have 60.” That’s far short of the 71 they need, but members aren’t really being pushed on it yet. Pritzker’s folks are having some informal chats with members.

To say that this is the governor’s top priority would be a huge understatement. Pritzker has staked his entire future on this proposal. His “bridge” budget proposal kicks the can in anticipation of eventual fiscal relief from his so-called $3.4 billion “Fair Tax.” It’s fully integrated into who and what he is.

If Pritzker fails, it will be the most spectacular flame-out since Republicans helped override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of the 2017 tax hike. Come to think of it, this could be worse because that override saved Illinois from junk bond status and if this graduated tax thing goes down Pritzker could be the one tagged “Gov. Junk” unless they quickly switch their focus to a higher flat tax. And that’ll come with its own political nightmares.

Expect a hard, hard push.

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

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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