Expected House passage of graduated income tax just start of long campaign

Illinois voters get rare chance to vote directly on major public policy issue—and the political ads that go with it.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker has made his graduated income tax plan a centerpiece of his administration. File Photo. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP)

Sometime before the end of the coming week, the Illinois General Assembly is expected to approve a constitutional amendment allowing for a graduated state income tax, at long last putting the matter before voters in the 2020 general election.

What happens next is something most Illinois voters may have never seen: a chance to directly decide a major public policy issue by referendum, accompanied by the bruising campaign that goes with it.

I’m looking forward to the vote, having believed for some time that Illinois needs to scrap its flat tax, but dreading the campaign that will come first.

All the same mechanisms we are accustomed to seeing deployed in support of major political candidates — tons of television, digital and direct mail advertising — will be trained instead on an idea. The nuances of tax policy will be reduced to 15- and 30-second spots that further exploit our culture wars.

Opinion bug


At some point during the next 18 months, the onslaught of commercials trying to convince us to vote for or against the constitutional amendment could make television unwatchable, especially when piled upon the normal presidential election year fare. In my case, watching less television could be a good thing, but no less unpleasant.

These types of issue campaigns have long been the norm in states such as California and Washington, where citizen initiatives and the fights that go with them are standard fare for voters, as well as a cottage industry for political consultants.

But here in Illinois, for better or worse, we have been shielded from such direct decision-making by a state constitution that sets a high bar for amendments and binding referenda of any sort, not to mention a state legislature that has been likewise keen on preserving the status quo. 

Thus, there has been no opportunity to vote for or against term limits or legislative redistricting reform, to mention just two of the many ideas on which some voters would like to be heard directly.

This would be among the most consequential questions put to the state’s citizenry since the Cutback Amendment vote in 1980 that reduced the number of members in the Illinois House of Representatives by a third. I’m not including the vote held every 20 years on whether to convene a Constitutional Convention.

Most constitutional amendments that have made it through to the ballot are noncontroversial, such as the Safe Roads Amendment that won with bipartisan 80 percent support in 2016 even though it wasn’t as benign as portrayed.

All is predicated, of course, on the Illinois House following the Senate’s lead and approving the constitutional amendment by a three-fifths vote.

That’s not a sure thing, but pretty close to it. New Gov. J.B. Pritzker has made passage of a graduated income tax his top priority, and Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature by large margins. House Speaker Mike Madigan seems to be on board, and that’s often at least two-thirds of the battle.

If lawmakers have any sense, they also will at the same time approve a companion piece of legislation setting forth the tax rates and brackets they plan to impose on Illinois taxpayers if the constitutional amendment gets the OK from voters.

For reasons that are not completely clear (cold feet about increasing taxes is always a good guess), the rate structure legislation is more in doubt at this point, even though it requires only a majority vote, compared to the three-fifths needed for a constitutional amendment.

Some of the Democratic legislators who will have to supply the 60 votes are looking to postpone the matter a few more months, although it passed out of committee Friday, which was a good sign.

The rate legislation is important because it will show voters exactly what is proposed —increased tax rates for the highest-earning 3 percent of taxpayers — and rob the opposition of any “what-are-they-hiding?” argument.

The outcome of the referendum is no sure thing either, despite polls that have shown for many years that Illinois voters are generally in favor of switching to a system that requires wealthier residents to pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes.

To become part of the Constitution, a proposed amendment must be approved by either 60 percent of those voting on the question or a majority of those voting in the election.

As you’ve probably noticed, neither side has waited for legislative passage to start their campaign, with Pritzker’s money backing the Think Big Illinois’ efforts to approve what he has branded the Fair Tax amendment while Republican money is supporting the Ideas Illinois group trying to defeat it.

I believe a graduated income tax is fair but don’t want to pretend that’s not a matter of dispute by calling it that.

Anyhow, we’ve got another 18 months to have that argument, and right now there are still ballgames to watch with no campaign commercials.

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