Opinions Editor

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

Deceit and duplicity are the watchwords of the successful politician.

Or, to put it another way, candor can be a killer.

Just ask state Treasurer Michael Frerichs, the smooth Champaign Democrat who has his eye on a higher office. He’s in hot water with his fellow Democrats, including Gov. J.B. Pritzker, for engaging in some untimely truth-telling regarding the consequences of passing the governor’s proposed progressive-income-tax amendment to the Illinois Constitution.

This past summer, Frerichs said a progressive income tax would make it easier for legislators to tax currently un-taxed retirement income.

Here’s how the Daily Herald described events when Frerichs, an enthusiastic supporter of a progressive income tax, made a joint appearance with Illinois Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Maisch before the Des Plaines chamber members.

“One thing a progressive tax would do is make clear you can have graduated rates when you are taxing retirement income. And I think that’s something worth discussing,” Frerichs said.

The newspaper reported Frerichs said he “knows people who receive six-figure yearly pensions and do not pay (state) income tax, but the current system doesn’t differentiate between them and retirees who barely get by on their savings or pensions.”

With that statement of the obvious, Frerichs stepped on what some call the “third rail” of Illinois politics, sending a potentially fatal jolt of political electricity to the tax proposal and some legislative candidates.

Here’s why suggesting a tax on retiree income is unmentionable for the political class: Retirees adamantly oppose being taxed on their pensions, Social Security or 401(k) income, and they vote.

Politicians want greedy geezers to be somnolent, not belligerent, and they fear Frerichs’ words will rouse them from slumber.

Republicans are doing their best to make that happen. They’re sending out mailers warning voters that Democratic legislators who favor the progressive income tax will use it as a vehicle to tax their retirement income. They cite Frerichs’ statement as proof.

At the same time, Springfield political analyst Rich Miller quoted one unidentified legislator as speculating that Frerichs’ gaffe could help defeat Pritzker’s tax amendment.

“In other words, if the treasurer screws this up, (Frerichs) might want to start updating his LinkedIn profile,” Miller wrote.

Apparently feeling the heat, Frerichs last week planned to throw cold water on his pension comments by scheduling a Wednesday news conference to “address misinformation” and “reassure citizens that the proposal will not tax retirement income,” according to a media advisory.

But the news conference was canceled without explanation about 10 minutes before it was scheduled to begin.

Instead, Frerichs issued a brief statement that indicated he is opposed to “creating a retirement tax in Illinois, along with the General Assembly and governor.”

Some speculated the cancellation came after the governor ordered the event shut down.

“Pritzker put the muzzle on Treasurer Frerichs, who was minutes away from telling the people of Illinois the truth,” GOP state Chairman Tim Schneider said. “Pritzker can muzzle Frerichs all he wants, but the secret is already out. To protect retirement income from Pritzker’s tax plan, Illinois voters must vote no on the constitutional amendment.”

Quentin Fuilks, chairman of the pro-amendment committee, tried to come to Frerichs’ rescue by issuing a statement that contended “the Fair Tax does not tax retirement income.”

That’s accurate. The amendment confers the power to levy multiple tax rates on a variety of types and levels of income, including retirement income. The power to choose the tax rates and types of income rests with the Legislature and governor.

That was Frerichs’ point when he told his audience in Des Plaines — in a moment of candor he now regrets — that adopting a progressive income tax would “make clear you can have graduated rates when you are taxing retirement income.”

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