A couple of Democrats demanded something be done about the state’s ever-increasing property tax bills during the spring legislative session.
They even held up a vote on their party’s top legislative priority, a constitutional amendment to change the state’s flat income tax to a progressive structure that allows higher rates for higher earners.
What they got for their effort was the Property Tax Relief Task Force. Eighty-eight lawmakers from the House and Senate have been appointed to the task force along with two members of the governor’s staff.
The task force has seven subcommittees: Assessments and Exemptions, Government Consolidation, Social and Economic Disparities, School Funding and School Property Taxes, Local Pensions, PTELL and Local Governments’ Tax Levy and TIF Districts.
While it seems like a lot, the sheer number of people on the task force doesn’t necessarily mean it is doomed to fail. If anything, perhaps having a larger group study the issues will produce a few new ideas. Illinois has among the highest property taxes in the U.S. At the very least, everyone assigned to the task force should be made aware of how the state’s property taxes work and what needs to be done to reduce the burden.
The subcommittees will all be looking at key factors that have pushed far too many Illinoisans out of their homes because they could no longer afford the property taxes.
If the actual goal is meaningful property tax relief, school consolidation, pension reform and government consolidation must be at the top of the list. Those aren’t the only ways to reduce property taxes, but they’re the big ones that need real solutions.
Illinois’ school districts are governed by locally elected school boards. Those boards receive, on average, 68 percent of their funding from local sources in 2017. That’s primarily from property taxes. State funding accounted for 24.4 percent and federal funding came in at 7.5 percent.
State lawmakers have pledged to put more money toward schools in the coming years, but it won’t be near enough to dramatically change those percentages. School district consolidation would help, but that won’t be easy either.
Illinois has 852 public school districts, far more than any other state, including California, which serves more than three times the number of students. Of Illinois’ 852 school districts, one in four supports a single school and more than 40 percent serve only one or two schools. Because of this, Illinois is the only state in the country to spend more than $1 billion annually on administrative costs in K-12 education. School consolidation should be a priority.
Momentum is picking up around plans to consolidate local public safety pension funds, which could help reduce municipal property tax bills, but it won’t translate into a sizable reduction for most of the state’s property owners.
Lawmakers need to take action on pensions, which continue to squeeze out funding for other services at both the state and local level. Illinoisans are on the hook for $240 billion in unfunded state public pension liabilities, that’s more than $18,000 per resident, according to Moody’s Investor Service. Failure to address the state’s underfunded pension systems puts Illinois financial future at risk and will need to be part of any effort to reduce property taxes.
Government consolidation could also help, but simply eliminating the local mosquito abatement district won’t move the needle much. Same with getting rid of the local street lighting district. That’s right, people are appointed in Illinois to serve on taxing bodies that are responsible for maintaining street lights.
While it is easy to dismiss an 88-member committee charged with delivering a report to the governor as a hollow effort to address one of the state’s most pressing issues, it’s better than nothing. But don’t wait on the task force’s reports to help solve the issue.
When it comes to property taxes, Illinois property owners are far more likely to get something done at the local level than waiting for the state legislature to actually do something. People like McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks, a former state representative, have been working to reduce property taxes for local residents for several years. Franks, in particular, has been getting results and actually sending property owners checks. When Franks took office, the Democrat challenged all of the county’s taxing bodies, including school districts, to reduce their property tax levies by 10 percent. Some accepted the challenge, others have resisted. Franks also looked at taxing bodies that had far more money sitting in the bank than needed. He returned some of that money to taxpayers.
Others are doing the same thing. If you want to lower your property tax bill, go talk to your local school board, vote in your local elections and put pressure on the taxing bodies that levy those taxes — just in case the Illinois General Assembly doesn’t come through on this one.
While local efforts will help, county boards, on their own, can only do so much.
While the state needs to force the issue — or a the very least, empower voters to do so — don’t count on a miracle from this task force.
Without sustained pressure at both the state and local level, your property tax bill will continue to climb, no matter how many lawmakers are assigned to this task force, or the next one.