Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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With two months to go before the November general election, there’s not a lot of conversation about how the statewide election will go in this solid Democratic state.

Voting, for the most part, will be strictly a formality.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, 75, is expected to corral his fifth term, while other statewide offices — from governor on down to comptroller — won’t be up for another vote until 2022. At the same time, the General Assembly will remain under Democratic Party control, most likely under continued supermajority control.

But that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot on the line for the people of Illinois as well as the governor and state legislators who run it.

What drama there is — this is a multimillion-dollar fight — surrounds a proposal that Gov. J.B. Pritzker calls the “fair tax” and his opponents call the “blank check” amendment.

It’s the governor’s proposed amendment to the Illinois Constitution that would repeal the current mandate for a flat income tax and allow state officials to establish a series of escalating tax rates on escalating levels of income.

Noting that 34 states have a progressive income-tax system, Pritzker insists it’s fair to impose higher rates on upper-income earners. He calls them the “millionaires and billionaires” who aren’t paying their fair share.

Fairness, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. So is the phrase “blank check,” which suggests — correctly, in this case — that the governor and legislators would have a free hand to revise tax rates and income levels anytime they choose.

The “blank check” aspect of the discussion frightens a lot of people who don’t want to pay more themselves but don’t mind other people paying more. They fear being swept up in Pritzker’s tax dragnet.

To get around that concern, Pritzker & Co. cite a new tax law that will take effect only if the progressive-income-tax amendment is approved. Under the pending statute, it would raise tax rates on those earning $250,000 or more from the current 4.95 percent flat rate to escalating rates ranging from 7.75 percent to 7.99 percent.

Pritzker contends that

97 percent of taxpayers would pay the same or less under his plan.

But the fact remains that Pritzker and legislators could change those tax rates and tax levels at any time.

So it’s a question of trust in a state where elected officials have shown themselves to

be remarkably unworthy of trust.

How much do the people of Illinois trust Pritzker and revenue-hungry legislators to keep their word if they are given carte-blanche authority?

Andy Shaw, the former president of the Chicago-based Better Government Association, is skeptical.

He asks what Pritzker and legislators can do to “regain the trust of voters who’ve grown increasingly cynical” about their elected officials.

He suggests Pritzker and legislators embrace serious reforms that bar legislators from engaging in the kind of practices that have gotten some House and Senate members in recent legal trouble. Shaw also proposed that they seriously address the issue of government downsizing in a way that would reduce costs to taxpayers.

“Illinois has more units of government — that is, separate taxing entities — than any other state. The number is around 7,000, which is about 2,000 — or

40 percent — more than runner-up states like Texas and Pennsylvania,” he said, noting that “the cost of bureaucratic bloat is staggering.”

The Legislature hasn’t shown much appetite over the years for doing anything about either problem. When they have addressed those issues, it’s been mostly lip service.

Unless legislators prove they’re serious, Shaw argues that passing Pritzker’s amendment should be put on hold.

Of course, that’s not going to happen.

Pritzker & Co. desperately want the $3 billion-plus in new revenue his tax plan would generate. At the same time, the desire for more revenue is also why Pritzker’s much-vaunted tax cuts are minuscule — they range from $14 to $65 a year for those earning up to $100,000 a year.

Many people, of course, don’t pay much attention to the details of a complicated tax issue. They hear “fair tax,” “blank check” and “millionaires and billionaires,” words that stoke emotions to either get the rich or assist the needy.

Pritzker has contributed $56 million-plus of his multibillion-dollar fortune to feed those emotions in favor of his plan. Progressive-tax opponents won’t be able to spend nearly as much as Pritzker & Co., but they, too, are expected to spend a large sum of money.

But there’s a lot more to it than sophisticated ad campaigns that feed suspicion of government or aggravate class envy. Voters would do well to follow the intricacies of an issue that’s one of the biggest ever to confront state taxpayers.

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