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Deep-pockets dogfight? Billionaires Ken Griffin and Gov. Pritzker dig into wallets in battle over income tax

As big as the eight-figure donation is from Ken Griffin, the founder and CEO of hedge fund Citadel, it’s a fraction of what Gov. J.B. Pritzker has already ponied up on the other side.

Ken Griffin, left, in 2018; Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right, in July. 
Hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, left, in 2018; Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right, in July. 
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times; Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Illinois’ richest man kicked in $20 million to fight Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed graduated income tax, setting the stage for a costly Election Day showdown on the ballot initiative.

It also puts two of Illinois’ richest men squarely on opposite sides of a battle over changing the tax code to hit high-income earners harder.

As big as the eight-figure donation is from Ken Griffin, the founder and CEO of hedge fund Citadel, it’s a fraction of what Pritzker has already ponied up.

The Democratic governor has personally dropped $56.5 million of his fortune into the “Vote Yes for Fairness” committee, which is focused on getting the ballot initiative passed.

Griffin is worth an estimated $12.1 billion, according to Forbes’ latest ranking of the world’s billionaires. That makes him the state’s richest man. Pritzker ranks sixth in the state with a fortune estimated at $3.4 billion from his Hyatt Hotels holdings and a private equity firm he once ran.

In a statement, Griffin said people aren’t waiting until November to “vote against the economic hardship created by the Springfield’s spending addiction – they’ve been voting with their feet for the past decade as Illinois has lost more residents than any other state in the nation.

Billionaire Ken Griffin, center, discusses a $10 million donation to reduce gun violence in 2018 as then Police Supt. Eddie Johnson, left, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, right, look on.
Billionaire Ken Griffin, center, discusses a $10 million donation to reduce gun violence in the city during a news conference in 2018 as then Police Supt. Eddie Johnson, left, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, right, look on.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

“In that time, two tax increases have already failed to improve our situation, and what’s now being marketed to voters under the guise of a ‘fair tax’ is nothing more than a progressive tax scheme engineered to extract the greatest amount of money possible from all Illinois taxpayers,” Griffin’s statement continued.

“As we’ve seen in other states with a progressive tax scheme, everyone inevitably pays a higher rate.”

But John Bouman, chairman of the “Vote Yes For Fair Tax” campaign, countered that Griffin’s donation helps “protect the broken status quo.”

“Griffin took home $1.5 billion in 2019 alone, yet paid the same state income tax rate as teachers, nurses, grocery store clerks and other essential workers,” Bouman’s statement continued. “That’s wrong and it’s exactly why Illinois needs the Fair Tax amendment.”

Quentin Fulks, who heads the “Yes For Fairness” committee Pritzker has donated to, said in a statement “if Mr. Griffin would like to explain why he thinks it’s fair that he pays the same tax rate as our nurses and grocery store clerks, that’s a conversation we welcome having.”

The Coalition to Stop the Proposed Tax Hike Amendment — the group that Griffin contributed to last week — said they’re encouraged people are “responding positively to our message that this is the worst possible time to raise taxes.”

“The Coalition welcomes support from anyone who believes we must stop Springfield Politicians from having new power to increase income taxes on every group of taxpayers, whenever they want,” the group said in a statement.

Passing what he dubs the “Fair Tax” has been one of Pritzker’s top priorities since he took office last year. While opponents argue the proposal opens the door for further tax hikes down the road to pay off the state’s massive debts, Pritzker portrays it as a way to get the rich — including himself — to pay their fair share.

Pritzker and his wife reported $5.5 million in taxable income for 2018. Trusts benefiting the Pritzkers paid $5.3 million in Illinois taxes at a rate of 6.45% and $29 million in federal taxes.

The first-term governor also donated a record-setting $171.5 million to his own gubernatorial campaign.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker unveils his graduated income tax plan during a news conference in 2019.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker unveils his graduated income tax plan during a news conference last year.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register file

Pritzker’s donations to the pro-graduated income tax “Yes For Fairness” committee are bankrolling the effort to get the initiative passed in November.

Bouman’s separate committee, the “Vote Yes for Fair Tax” group, has nearly $1.8 million in its coffers, state election records show.

News of Griffin’s donation follows unions, including SEIU Healthcare and the Chicago Federation of Labor, throwing their support behind the proposed amendment on Thursday. Both labor organizations have an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.

The AARP is also on board with the change in the state’s tax structure, launching ads last month supporting the proposed tax amendment that asked people “if you’re not a billionaire, why are you taxed like one?”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, left, in March; Todd Maisch, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, right.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, left, in March; Todd Maisch, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, right.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file; www.ilchamber.org.

Business owners are largely behind the effort to stop the proposed change in the tax code. Todd Maisch, head of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, and other business leaders held news conferences in July in Chicago, Springfield, Peoria and Rockford to announce a grass-roots campaign against the proposal.

Under the proposal, incomes between $250,000 and $500,000 would be taxed 7.75%. It would maintain the current tax rate of 4.95% on incomes between $100,000 and $250,000. Income from $500,000 to $1 million would be taxed 7.85%, while income over $1 million would be taxed 7.99%. For those earning incomes of $100,000 or less, the rate would dip down to 4.9%.

Voters are not deciding on the rates when they cast their ballot in November, however.

Should voters approve the constitutional amendment, the new tax rates would go into effect Jan. 1, 2021.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story that appeared in print and online included an incorrect characterization of interest payments Northern Trust paid out on bank balances held by the “Vote Yes for Fairness” committee.