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Pritzker says graduated state income tax must advance this spring

Gov. J.B. Pritzker met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Thursday, February 21, 2019 to talk about his first budget. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

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

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Thursday he will press the General Assembly to approve a graduated income tax before it adjourns in May — with both a constitutional amendment to put before voters and companion legislation setting forth the new tax rates.

Pritzker’s ambitious timetable would set the stage for an immediate political showdown in the legislature to be followed by a protracted 17-month public campaign leading up to a November 2020 referendum.

In the past, Democratic legislative leaders have insisted they would not consider constitutional amendments in odd-numbered years when no statewide election is held.

But Pritzker said both House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton have promised to support his strategy to address the tax issue this spring.

“This is the moment where we are going to have to make some hard decisions in the state of Illinois, and I think a graduated income tax is the right decision in the context of the need to overcome a structural deficit and to maintain the services that we need for the people,” Pritzker told the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board.

Switching Illinois from its flat-rate income tax to a progressive income tax with higher rates for upper income taxpayers was a centerpiece of Pritzker’s election campaign and is now the main focus of his plan to fix the state’s financial problems.

During the campaign for governor, Pritzker insisted what he calls a “fair tax” would give a break to middle and lower income taxpayers.  But he was criticized for refusing to specify any proposed new rates or where he would draw the line between upper and middle income.

As he has in the past, Pritzker told the Sun-Times the tax rates will have to be a matter of negotiation with state legislators.

But he said his plan to tackle the issue in the legislature’s spring session means voters will soon have that information with plenty of time before the 2020 vote to assess how it will effect them.

Under Pritzker’s plan, the new income tax rates would go into effect Jan. 1, 2021.

Pritzker also suggested any change in the income tax will need to be accompanied by some manner of property tax relief, although he remained vague about what form that would take.

A spokesman for Cullerton said the Senate President is “eager to support the governor’s ideas and timeline for accomplishing them. He recognizes how important this is to finally fixing the lingering structural deficit and providing financial stability going forward.”

On a related matter, Pritzker acknowledged he has provided some of the initial funding for Think Big Illinois, a new non-profit issue advocacy organization expected to provide political cover for his policies — including the switch to a graduated income tax.

But Pritzker said he doesn’t know how much he’s donated and denied he’s made any specific future dollar commitment to the group, which is being run by one of his former top campaign aides.

Pritzker also said he’s already cast his vote for Chicago mayor. He wouldn’t say which candidate got his vote.