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How do we thank ‘essential workers?’ Vote for a graduated Illinois income tax on Nov. 3

The coronavirus pandemic vividly reveals the unfairness of a flat income tax, in which every dollar is taxed at the same rate no matter how rich or poor you are.

Dr. Allison Arwady (left), commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, looks on as Gov. J.B. Pritzker decries the federal government’s response to the coronavirus during a press conference at the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications headquarters, Wednesday morning, March 11, 2020. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Because the Illinois economy has been hard hit by the coronavirus, Gov. J.B. Pritzker says, a graduated income tax instead of a flat tax is needed “now more than ever.”
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

An extra dollar in the pocket of a multimillionaire doesn’t matter as much as the same dollar in the pocket of a working stiff, a timeless truth made all the more obvious by the coronavirus pandemic.

American workers who eke by on modest hourly or gig-economy incomes — store clerks, baristas, bartenders, cab drivers, day care workers, office cleaners and restaurant cooks — have been disproportionately thrown out of work by this pandemic. They lived close to the edge before, and now they’ve been shoved off, without the soft cushion enjoyed by the upper middle class and wealthy.

At the same time, the essential nature of the work done by so many Americans of modest means is more evident than ever. What would the rest of us do at this time, safely ensconced in our homes, without the grocery store clerks, nursing home workers and delivery people who are risking their lives just by going to work?

What would we do, for that matter, without those other “essential workers” during the pandemic — police officers, firefighters, mail carriers, train conductors and ambulance drivers — who earn a good paycheck but by no means are getting rich?

To our thinking, the plight of these workers demonstrates the fundamental unfairness of the flat income tax in Illinois, in which every dollar is taxed at the same rate no matter how rich or poor you are. And nothing makes a better argument for voting on Nov. 3 to move our state to a graduated income tax, which would require the wealthiest of us to pick up a little more of the total tab.

‘Support essential workers’

If you were to take a walk through any of the Chicago area’s most exclusive suburbs right now, just to get out of the house, you would see signs posted outside stately small mansions that say “Support essential workers! Stay home.”

A terrific sentiment. We second the motion.

But with all respect to the folks living in those lovely homes, a better way to support those essential workers in the long run is to support a graduated income tax.

The economy of Illinois, like the economy of every state, has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. It has exploded the state’s budget. Revenue from income taxes, sales taxes, the Lottery, gambling and other sources has plummeted. As a result of the pandemic, state officials estimate, there will be a $2.7 billion budget shortfall for the final two and a half months of the current fiscal year, and a $6.2 billion shortfall next fiscal year — rising to $7.4 billion if the state does not move to a graduated income tax.

Early this month, the credit ratings agency Moody’s affirmed Illinois’ rating at a notch above junk status and recently revised its outlook for Illinois from “stable” to “negative.”

Illinois must do everything possible to narrow those budget gaps by eliminating wasteful and inefficient spending, of course. But that alone won’t come close to solving this budgetary crisis.

The state has no choice but to find new sources of revenue, even assuming further federal stimulus assistance, or it will be forced to slash funding for essential services, including schools and universities, public safety, clean water and air, care for the elderly and the disabled, and support for small businesses.

People who are fortunate enough to still have a job and pull in a high income should pay a little more.

“Who’s suffering most?” Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois, asked us. “It’s the folks who can’t work at home, who are ‘essential’ frontline workers, who earn a very low wage, who depend on public transportation and really need government services like child care. They don’t get paid time off. They don’t have health care coverage. They’re not victims of the coronavirus. They’re victims of an economic inequality that existed long before.”

How tax works

Pritzker’s proposed graduated income tax would raise taxes only on people who earn $250,000 or more a year. It would maintain the current tax rate of 4.95% on incomes between $100,000 and $250,000, and reduce the rate on incomes of $100,000 or less.

Critics of a graduated income tax will argue that the wealthiest residents of Illinois have been hurt by the pandemic, too — and that is certainly true. Their income has taken a hit, and their needs are up. But if their income is now lower, their tax bill automatically will be lower. Nobody pays taxes on money they haven’t made. And anybody whose income has fallen below the $250,000 threshold won’t be touched by the higher tax rate.

Thirty-four other states already have a graduated income tax, and for good reason. It is a matter of economic fairness, as the pandemic has made vividly clear.

If we’re serious about all that love for those “essential” workers, there’s only one clear choice: Vote for the graduated income tax on Nov. 3.

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