Jim Dey | Progressive-tax warriors do battle with polls, statistics

Jim Dey | Progressive-tax warriors do battle with polls, statistics

With the November 2020 election 19 months away, it's way too early to hit the campaign trail.

But don't tell that to the proponents and opponents of Gov. J.B. Pritzker's proposed progressive-tax amendment to the Illinois Constitution. On an issue where perception is reality, both sides are working hard to shape voter attitudes in a way that will produce their version of victory at the ballot box.

Gov. Pritzker and his allies are pushing the theme that his plan to replace the state constitution's mandated flat tax with progressive rates on higher levels of income will "solve" the state's financial problems.

At the same time, opponents of the Pritzker plan contend that levying highertax rates on higher levels of income would do further damage to the state's business climate — "the state's job engine."

More important, from the Pritzker point of view, is that his plan to levy higher tax rates on higher levels of income would only affect a relative handful of high earners (3 percent of taxpayers) and leave the rest (97 percent) alone. No wonder, say the Pritzker forces, that his plan is opposed by "millionaires who would be forced to pay more if Illinois makes our tax system fair."

Polls show that relatively few state voters are aware of the Pritzker plan. Apparently, they're all hiding under a rock in some alternative universe where news does not enter.

But those who are watching surely have noticed a constant theme undergirding the progressive tax plan — millionaires bad, non-millionaires good, get the millionaires.

Pritzker's press office recently released income data from nearly 20 counties showing that the governor's proposal raises taxes on even fewer taxpayers there than the estimated 3 percent statewide.

In Champaign County, Pritzker's office said, 98.12 percent of taxpayers will "pay the same or less, while millionaires who make up only 0.15 percent of the county will pay the top rate."

Pritzker's office cited similar or even more lopsided percentages in counties like Vermilion (99.42 percent and 0.08 percent, respectively) and Macon (98.49 percent and 0.15 percent, respectively).

The term "millionaires" in this context is a misnomer because the progressive tax applies to income. Pritzker's increase would affect those with incomes substantially less than $1 million a year.

One version of the rates Pritzker said he would like to put in place — if the amendment passes — would raise tax rates on those who earn more than $250,000 a year. That group could include those with annual incomes of $1 million or more a year, those with total assets in excess of $1 million a year or even individuals who enjoy one-year income bonanzas that exceed $250,000 but have not, in other respects, achieved millionaire status.

The excoriation of millionaires is, no doubt, an effective politics. But it doesn't play well with everyone.

Andy Shaw, the former head of the Chicago-based Better Government Association, recently wrote an article for The Chicago Tribune that rejected Pritzker's attack on the "greedy" rich. He called it "unfair and just plain wrong."

Shaw said he worked for years with philanthropic business and civic leaders who gave their money generously to a variety of cultural, academic and social causes.

But Shaw said many are rightly skeptical of Pritzker's tax hike plan because it appears to be intended to maintain the failing status quo in Illinois.

"They're increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of meaningful reform in Illinois after living through years — in some cases, decades — of waste, fraud, corruption and inefficiency" in government at all levels, Shaw wrote.

Shaw said voters "should not be asked to consider a progressive income tax" until "law makers do their jobs by demonstrating a real appetite for the responsible budgeting, spending and cost-cutting they've mostly avoided for decades."

While Shaw's warning was a shot across the bow, the Illinois Policy Institute is focusing its opposition more narrowly, targeting the legislative districts of House Democrats Pritzker is counting on to put the proposed amendment on next year's ballot.

The Illinois House and Senate must vote with 60 percent majorities to put the amendment up on the ballot. To become law, voters must then pass it with a 60-plus percent super-majority.

An IPI pollster — Fabrizio, Lee & Associates — surveyed opinions in the House district of Decatur state Rep. Sue Scherer.

It found mixed support for Pritzker (31 percent favorable, 28 percent unfavorable), opposition to the proposed amendment (41 percent opposed, 32 percent for).

It produced similar negative results in four other state House districts held by Democrats.

IPI's goal, obviously, is to persuade vulnerable House Democrats to vote against Pritzker's proposal. Despite that, Democrats, who hold super-majorities in both the House and Senate, will almost certainly have the votes to put the measure on the ballot.

That's why both sides are in this fight for the long haul and will be slugging it out for months to come.

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

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