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Two good ways to kill the property tax insider’s game

Illinois gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chris Kennedy, who is running for governor, has a plan to end an unholy alliance between property tax attorneys and elected officials in Illinois.

When Kennedy announced his plan Tuesday, reporters viewed it first through the prism of politics. With this move, everybody agreed, Kennedy was declaring his independence from the powers that be of the local Democratic Party.

But politics aside, there is also this: It’s a good plan and long overdue.


It helps to understand the scam Kennedy says he would like to end, though he is careful to name no names:

Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan is also chairman of the state Democratic Party and a successful property tax lawyer. His law firm handles property tax appeals for some of the biggest building owners in Chicago. To obtain a property tax assessment reduction for a client, Madigan’s lawyers routinely petition the office of Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, who is chairman of the county Democratic Party.

Right there, things are too cozy. But it gets worse.

Berrios also has a conveniently positioned second job. He is co-owner of a consulting firm that regularly goes to Springfield to ask Madigan and his legislative yes-men for favors on behalf of clients.

So Mike goes to Joe with his hand out, and Joe goes to Mike with his hand out, and you have to admit there’s a beautiful symmetry to it all.

Adding to Berrios’ conflicts of interest, he has raked in generous campaign donations — about $1.9 million since 2012, according to CBS 2 News — from tax lawyers eager to curry his favor. If nobody has succeeded in buying Berrios — and he insists nobody has — it is not for lack of trying.

Kennedy himself is no stranger to the insider’s game. He once hired Madigan to represent him when he sought a lower property assessment while managing family property.

But now Kennedy is proposing two sensible reforms: Elected officials would be banned from working as property tax lawyers. And tax lawyers would be banned from making campaign donations to local assessors.

We favor both proposals, though we see the danger in general of laws that ban elected officials from holding certain kinds of jobs. This would be a special case, reflecting the especially easy risk of corruption.

Property taxes are a zero-sum game, which is why special breaks for insiders hurt you. When one property owner gets a tax break, everybody else must pay more to make up the difference.

Unless, of course, you know somebody, too.