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‘Fair tax’ or ‘jobs tax’? Democrats launch Pritzker’s tax fight as GOP objects

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a news conference on Tuesday in Springfield. Screen image.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a news conference on Tuesday in Springfield. Screen image.

The Illinois Senate plans to take the first major step in trying to enact a graduated income tax — with an amendment that would remove the flat income tax structure from the state’s constitution to be heard in a committee as soon as Wednesday.

The amendment to a previous Senate resolution is the first part in getting the Illinois Constitution to require a “fair” or graduated income tax — Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s No. 1 priority. The Illinois General Assembly must first approve putting a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot to ask voters if they want to change that portion of the constitution.

The movement brought out a cheerleading effort, as Pritzker stood alongside Democratic legislators in his Springfield office to herald the first step.

“Today is an important next step to give voters a choice about whether the wealthy will pay more and 97 percent of families will pay the same or less,” Pritzker said. “It will let us adopt a system that is more fair to the middle class. Most importantly, as I’ve said from the beginning, that it doesn’t make sense that I pay the same rate as a teacher or a first responder. Today we are taking a first step, a next step, to fix that unfairness.”

Pritzker, a billionaire who is helping to fund one side of a dark money battle over the graduated income tax, also had a message for the other side:  “It is transparent that you are defending an unfair status quo that benefits the wealthiest Illinoisans instead of offering your own ideas for how to fix our state’s problems.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a news conference on Tuesday in Springfield. Screen image.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a news conference on Tuesday in Springfield. Screen image.

Ideas Illinois, the dark money group led by former Illinois Manufacturers’ Association head Greg Baise, in turn called the resolution, “the first step by politicians to hand themselves a blank check with middle class families’ hard earned money.”

Legislators will try to separately pass legislation that would include the proposed rates before the end of the spring session. Pritzker has proposed a rate structure based on income to replace the current 4.95 percent levied on all taxpayers.

While the Illinois Senate plans to begin reading the resolution this week  — it must be read in its entirety on three days — a vote is unlikely this week. The resolution’s sponsor, state Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, said he hopes it will come to a vote when legislators return from a two-week break the week of April 29.

Harmon said the language in the amendment came after negotiations between House and Senate members and staff, as well as the governor’s office.

“We arrived at what I think is very sound, very constitutional language that would allow us to enact a fair tax,” Harmon said.

Harmon said once the House and Senate pass the resolution, they must consider a second resolution that will include a public statement of the arguments for and against the fair tax, as well as the form of the ballot question.

“You can imagine with some constitutional amendments going on for ages, that you need to boil it down to a shorter narrative for voters to understand the argument, “Harmon said. “We’ll put it all together in another resolution after we’re sure it’s going to be on the ballot.”

The second resolution would “frame the argument,” Harmon said, with the Illinois Secretary of State to mail every registered voter information.

Harmon said he’s confident the resolution will pass the Illinois House, with the support of Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.

“I know that members get anxious, and that’s an important part of the process,” Harmon said. “But I hope that our very strong showing in the Senate will demonstrate that this is the right thing to do.”

In order for the resolution to make it onto the ballot, the House and Senate must approve it with a 3/5 majority. It does not need Pritzker’s approval.

John Patterson, spokesman for Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, said the Senate president is supportive of the new amendment.

The movement means the Illinois Senate will have the ball rolling on the resolution prior to a two-week spring break, putting in motion the deepening of a protracted fight between two dark money groups involved in the graduated income tax fight.

Think Big Illinois, the group Pritzker is helping to fund, applauded the amendment.

“A fair tax will help address Illinois’ $3.2 billion budget crisis and put our state on the path toward fiscal sustainability, all while lifting the burden off middle and working-class families who are disproportionately hurt under our current unfair tax system,” the group said in a statement.

Ideas Illinois, the other side of the dark money coin, said the “massive Jobs Tax” will harm job creators in the state and is being pushed by Pritzker and Madigan “with zero transparency and zero accountability.”

Illinois Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, said his caucus opposes the changed tax structure because it doesn’t provide middle class protections and opens the door for the “Democratic majority” to alter rates at any time.

“We obviously feel strongly that this isn’t helpful to Illinois’ economy and to middle class families,” Brady said. “And so there will obviously be a long-drawn out educational process to convince the voters of why we think this is a bad measure.”