Jim Dey | Pritzker's vagueness puts Rauner in a vise

Jim Dey | Pritzker's vagueness puts Rauner in a vise

When it comes to the law, vagueness is a vice that cannot be tolerated. Many laws have been stricken from the books for including unclear language that can be interpreted in multiple ways.

In politics, it's just the opposite — vague language is prized because it can be interpreted in multiple ways that allow a candidate to represent all things to all people.

Take the subject of a state income tax increase. Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker has repeatedly said he'll raise taxes and repeatedly refused to say by how much and on whom.

Incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has challenged Pritzker's plans to boost the state's 4.95 flat tax rate during his first two years in office as a prelude to winning voter approval of a state constitutional amendment authorizing a progressive income tax in November 2020.

But Rauner keeps getting slapped down for suggesting that his opponent's tax plans mean most taxpayers will pay more under a Pritzker administration.

"Rauner's claim that graduated (income tax) systems inevitably lead to higher taxes on the middle class is not even close to accurate. We rate this false," stated a fact-check article prepared by the Better Government Association.

"The facts: Pritzker has not released a specific tax plan, so it's impossible to say just how much he might raise taxes and who might pay more," said an Associated Press fact check that chastised Rauner for linking Pritzker to a tax plan introduced by a Democratic legislator from Chicago.

For Rauner, challenging Pritzker on state income taxes is like boxing a ghost — at least as far as the news media has viewed it.

His tax punches don't connect because they can't connect. Pritzker's refusal to tell voters what he has in mind until after the election is making it difficult for Rauner to tell voters before the election what Pritzker has in mind.

Pritzker, of course, could end the uncertainty by revealing the numbers behind the tax plan that he'll outline to leaders of what will surely be a Democrat-controlled legislature in January. But he won't because that would be politically unwise, an admission that would cost him the shield of immunity conferred on him by media outlets.

Those are the facts, but they do not represent all the facts.

Rauner is a multi-multi-millionaire by dint of his success in the private sector. Pritzker is a multi-multi-billionaire by dint of his success in selecting his parents and building on his inherited fortune with successful investments.

But people like them, however they make their money, are few and far between.

That's why pledges to raise income taxes on "millionaires and billionaires," as politicians routinely say, do not ring true. There aren't enough of them.

The Illinois Department of Revenue reports, for the 2016 tax year, that slightly more than 57,000 tax filers out of nearly 5.7 million reported incomes of $500,000 or more. That about 1 percent.

At the same time, 3.2 million tax filers reported incomes between zero and $50,000.

There were 1.3 million who reported incomes between $50,000 and $100,000 and another 1 million who reported income between $100,000 and $500,000.

It's a sure bet that the vast majority of the people in the $100,000 to $500,000 income category were closer to $100,000 in income than $500,000 in income.

So, to raise sufficient revenue, it seems clear that Pritzker will have no choice but to go where the money is — and most of the people are — by targeting those with incomes of $50,000 and up.

He may ease the pain on people at the lower end of that income scale by implementing a standard deduction and boosting personal exemptions. But when state officials set about increasing taxes, they only make their job harder by lowering taxes.

Even boosts like that don't matter a whole lot in high tax states like New York.

For example, the Better Government Association blasted Rauner for not mentioning facts like this — New York has a standard deduction of $11,700, four times Illinois' personal exemption of $2,175.

At the same time, New York's eight progressive income tax rates start at 5.9 percent on a single person earning $13,900 and go up to 8.8 percent on incomes over $1.1 million. While that standard deduction may wipe out most of a New York tax obligation for those at the lower end, those in the middle income and up pay much more than Illinois residents do under their current 4.95 percent flat tax.

It is, of course, difficult to make exact comparisons of progressive tax rates in one state and flat income tax rates in other states because each has its own system of deductions and exemptions.

But, as a general rule, tax rates mostly speak for themselves.

Thirty-two states have progressive income taxes. The rest either have no income tax, like Florida, Texas and Washington, or, a flat tax, like Illinois and Michigan.

One claim that got Rauner in fact-check trouble was this: "The truth is, every state that has put in a graduated income tax, the middle class always pays more."

To support Rauner's claim, his campaign staff gave the Better Government Association a list of 26 states supporting Rauner's claim.

"(The campaign's) list omits six states with graduated taxes where such a taxpayer would pay less even though Rauner was adamant that his claim applied to all such states," the Better Government Association said.

Public opinion polls indicate that Rauner is trailing badly in his re-election effort. One of Rauner's problems is that Pritzker's vagueness has become one of the key political virtues as election day draws ever closer.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion