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Pity the struggling billionaire who fears a graduated income tax for Illinois

Don’t let his rhetoric fool you. Ken Griffin wants your taxes to go up sharply so that his go up hardly at all.

Ken Griffin
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ken Griffin, the richest man in Illinois, has made billions in the hedge fund business through his Citadel investment firm in Chicago.

Now Griffin is making another investment, recently giving $20 million to a business group that aims to defeat Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s graduated income-tax proposal come Nov. 3.

We say investment, rather than contribution, because if Griffin succeeds his personal bottom line will benefit tremendously. He will continue to pay taxes at the same rate he does now, 4.95%, rather than at a higher rate, 7.99%, for any income he gets over $1 million or so.

When you make as much money as Griffin, whose net worth has been pegged at $15 billion by Forbes, avoiding a three percentage point increase in income taxes is an excellent return on a $20 million investment. Even if that means taxpayers of more modest means — pretty much everybody else — will have to pay more.

Promoting a falsehood

Griffin followed up his investment in the Coalition to Stop the Proposed Tax Hike Amendment — which undoubtedly will plaster the airwaves with ads against Pritzker’s proposal — with a Chicago Tribune op-ed last week promoting the falsehood that the governor is engineering “a graduated tax scheme engineered to extract the greatest amount of money possible from Illinois taxpayers.” In it, Griffin points out his everyman roots, noting his great-great grandfather was a gardener in Lake Forest, his great-grandparents were farmers in Galena and his grandparents “built a small fuel-oil business in Libertyville from scratch.”

Griffin’s family story is admirable. Really. As are his many charitable contributions to Chicago and the state of Illinois. He has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to public schools, libraries and the major museums. He recently kicked $2.5 million into a fund to provide meals during the pandemic to low-income Chicago public school students. He has given $21 million to reconstruct and repair the Lakefront Trail, a bike and walking path.

But Griffin is not being honest about Pritzker’s proposal, nor is he devoid of self-interest.

The numbers are indisputable: 41 of 50 states have an income tax, and 34 of those 41 have a graduated tax structure. That includes the nearby states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and Ohio, as well as larger population states such as New York and California.

Progressive taxation isn’t an outlier. It’s the norm.

But, to Griffin’s thinking, it’s some kind of radical left-wing idea that will reverse the Earth’s orbit and make it harder for the rich to get richer. And it’s the type of false narrative that’s gotten our state into the distressed financial condition it’s in — even before the coronavirus pandemic.

Rauner left a world of hurt

Illinois was a moderate tax state at the time Griffin helped elevate Bruce Rauner into the governor’s mansion with millions of dollars in contributions. Rauner happened to have millions himself, too.

Rauner then effectively held state government hostage for two years while trying to further lower state income tax rates that already had dropped from 5% to 3.75%. Members of Rauner’s own Republican Party broke with him, but Griffin didn’t. He rewarded Rauner with millions more in campaign contributions to seek re-election.

Thankfully, Pritzker beat Rauner. But Rauner’s four years in office left our state in a world of hurt just in time for COVID-19.

And now Griffin wants your taxes to go up so that his will go up less?

The value of a dollar

We’ve said this before, and we’ll say it again: An extra dollar in the pocket of a multimillionaire — or, in the case of Griffin, a multibillionaire — doesn’t matter as much as the same dollar in the pocket of a working-class person. Yet right now in Illinois, every dollar is taxed at the same rate no matter how rich or poor you are.

To our thinking, nothing makes a better argument for voting to move our state to a graduated income tax.

Pritzker says that, under his proposal, 97% of Illinoisans would pay the same or less in taxes, while 3% would pay more. In all, state government would collect $3.57 billion more in revenue.

Amid the pandemic and the recession, does anyone really question whether the state needs this? Does anyone really believe the state government can cut its way to breaking even?

Not a chance.

Where, then, should the money come from?

Should it come from the gardener in Lake Forest, the farmers in Galena or the small business owners in Libertyville?

Should it come from the 20-somethings in Illinois trying to stake out their fortunes just like Ken Griffin did some 30 years ago?

Or should it come from the 3% of taxpayers fortunate enough to be able to pay their fair share at this challenging time?

The answer is obvious.

Vote for fairness. Vote for a graduated income tax in Illinois on Nov. 3.

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Editor’s note: This editorial has been updated to reflect Ken Griffin’s charitable contributions throughout the state of Illinois.