The November ballot presents a unique opportunity — voters will have the chance to speak directly to an issue that could have groundbreaking consequences.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed progressive-tax constitutional amendment is the most significant public-policy proposal that has ever been — or may ever be — placed before Illinois voters.
The governor is asking voters to repeal the state’s current flat-tax mandate, giving permission for legislators to impose escalating tax rates on rising levels of income. Legislators also are seeking authority to levy multiple taxes on the same income.
Will it pass? Who knows? Any controversial amendment has an uphill climb.
But one thing is for sure — the opposing sides are going all out to win. The campaign already is scheduled to go over the $100 million threshold in campaign spending.
“It is just astronomically bigger than anything we have ever seen,” said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois in Springfield.
He said the most ever spent on any of the previous 16 proposed constitutional amendments was “probably less than $4 million.”
Pritzker’s amendment is a big-spending affair because it’s a big-money issue. Passage would allow legislators to generate many, many billions of dollars in new revenue in the coming years.
In 2021 alone, officials estimate higher progressive tax rates will generate an additional $3.4 billion.
But constitutional amendments are tricky in that they raise multiple questions.
How many people will vote in the election overall? Of those who vote in the election, how many will vote on this particular proposal?
There are two standards to determine the results.
Adoption requires supermajority support. That’s because amending the constitution is far more serious than passing a law one year that can be repealed the next.
The Illinois Constitution represents an almost permanent legal framework within which the three branches of government operate. It takes on that issue in an unusual way.
To be adopted, Pritzker’s amendment must be approved by “either three-fifths (60 percent) of those voting on the question or a majority of those voting in the election,” according to the Illinois Constitution.
Different people count the previous amendments in different ways, because some raised more than one issue. That’s why, depending on the authority, voters have addressed either 16 or 21 amendments since 1970.
The Illinois State Board of Elections puts the official number at 16, nine of which were approved.
From 1978 to 2008, it was common for proposed amendments to be decided by the 60 percent benchmark because so many voters abstained on the issue.
Those amendments included such high-profile proposals as former Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to reduce the size of the Illinois House and do away with cumulative voting and former state Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch’s proposal to shift the responsibility for funding K-12 education primarily to the state.
In both those contests, roughly
60 percent of voters who participated in the election did not vote on the amendments.
However, that pattern has changed since 2010. Four out of the five amendment issues since then drew overwhelming participation.
For example, just 13 percent of voters chose not to address the gubernatorial-recall amendment.
The 2010 gubernatorial recall amendment is in name only because legislators imposed so many conditions that it’s virtually impossible to get it on the ballot.
A victim’s bill of rights — another feel-good proposal that conferred no enforceable rights on victims — drew a 92 percent participation rate in 2014.
The 2016 “lock-box amendment,” which purports to restrict the use
of gasoline sales-tax money solely
for roads, attracted 85 percent participation.
Why the increase?
Redfield suggested ballot-placement improvements have made amendments easier for voters to find. But he speculated the big reason is that campaign managers have “more means of communications” — direct mail, cable television advertising, social media — than they once had.
“It’s a lot cheaper to reach a lot more people,” he said.
Given the controversy surrounding Pritzker’s amendment, it seems likely that a substantial majority of voters will want to be heard. What they’ll be heard saying is a different matter altogether.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at email@example.com or 217-351-5369.