Editorial | Who will pay and how much?

Editorial | Who will pay and how much?

"Don't tax you. Don't tax me. Tax the guy behind the tree."

That bit of doggerel is popularly attributed to late Louisiana U.S. Sen. Russell Long, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

It accurately sums up popular attitudes among many taxpayers who feel they pay too much in taxes, while everyone else pays too little. It also explains why elected officials and candidates of all persuasions and parties are generally loath to talk about raising taxes in an election year.

But that's not the case in this year's gubernatorial race in Illinois, where Democrat J.B. Pritzker is challenging Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Pritzker, surprisingly, is running on a platform that promises a state income tax increase, first in the current 4.95 percent flat rate and later with the passage of a progressive income tax that levies higher rates of taxation on rising levels of income.

While Pritzker deserves credit for his candor about his tax plans, he's been reticent to discuss specifics.

What kind of flat rate increase does he think is necessary?

If a progressive income tax is approved by voters in November 2020 — a tough sell that requires approval by an extraordinary 60 percent majority — what rates on what levels of income will he recommend to what surely will be a Democratic-controlled Legislature?

So far, Pritzker won't say. He contends that's an issue to be negotiated with legislators. But it's clear he's embracing the vice of vagueness to avoid trouble in an election contest that he's expected to win.

All Pritzker will say is that he'll go after the "millionaires and billionaires," aka upper-income earners he insists aren't paying their fair share. At the same time, Pritzker is promising increased deductions for middle-class taxpayers and those striving to become middle-class taxpayers to ensure that the rich will pay more and others will pay less.

That's a clear enough approach.

But a big question remains.

Given Illinois' hideous financial position, is it actually possible for the state to tax high-income earners enough to dig the state out of a mammoth financial hole while also generating enough revenue to pay for the series of social welfare programs Pritzker has embraced?

Research organization Wirepoints recently examined the state's debts and the state's taxpayers and concluded that there are not enough "millionaires and billionaires" to raise the revenue to meet Pritzker's twin goals.

State debts, according to Wirepoints, include total unfunded pension liabilities of $250 billion, another $56 billion in unfunded health care obligations for state workers, roughly $11.7 billion in debts from ongoing state budget deficits and, finally, plans to spend $3.5 billion in additional K-12 support over the next 10 years.

Mark Glennon, Wirepoints' executive editor, noted that there will be additional, but so far undetermined costs, if Pritzker's plans for universal health care and early-childhood education are adopted.

Piling all those billion-dollar debts on top of one another adds up to real money, not to mention a huge financial burden on the millionaires and billionaires.

There are, of course, not many of those super-income earners in Illinois. So Wirepoints focused on a more realistic group of millionaires and billionaires, the roughly 550,000 Illinois taxpayers who have "over $150,000 in annual incomes."

It estimates they would be "on the hook" for $433,000 each to pay off the state's pension obligations, $101,000 each to pay off the unfunded health mandates, $12,000 each to pay off state budget deficits and $6,300 each to meet expanded K-12 spending.

There is no estimate for Pritzker's social spending plans because they're still on the drawing board.

Of course, these millionaires and billionaires wouldn't have to pay up all at once. They'd be given a reasonable amount of time — in perpetuity — to pay their fair share, if they decided to remain in the Land of Lincoln. Still, it's a huge burden to put on a relatively small group of people, so small that one would have to be incredibly naive to believe Pritzker's proposed income tax increases — whatever their form — would be limited to super-income earners. There aren't enough of them.

That's why voters must press candidate Pritzker for more details on how he intends to do what he says he intends to do. He's been upfront on his vision for Illinois.

But raising income taxes is all about numbers, and Pritzker needs to start providing some.

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