Listen to this article

There are two ways to look at the governor's higher tax rates in waiting.

Amid all the discussion of some 300 new laws passed by the General Assembly, the people of Illinois may have overlooked one of the most important, both in terms of substance and symbolism.

In a perfect example of putting the cart before the horse, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation establishing a new system of steadily higher tax rates on income that may — or may not — take effect on Jan. 1, 2021.

Whether those new rates become reality depends on whether voters approve Pritzker's proposed amendment to establish a progressive income tax in the November 2020 general election.

The amendment, which needs 60 percent support from the voters to take effect, would replace the current flat-tax mandate in the Illinois Constitution. If it passes, it means that legislators can impose whatever rates they wish on whatever levels of income they prefer and continue to make changes ad infinitum.

The initial rates approved by the majority-Democrat Legislature and governor call for dramatically higher rates on individuals who earn more than $250,000 a year.

A 7.75 percent rate would apply to incomes between $250,000 and $500,000, a 7.85 percent rate would apply to income between $500,000 and $1 million, and a nearly 8 percent rate would apply to income over $1 million.

The state's current flat tax stands at 4.95 percent, nearly 66 percent higher than the 3 percent rate that was in effect in 2011.

Those who earn between $100,000 and $250,000 would continue to pay the 4.95 percent rate. At the same time, lesser income earners would receive tiny rate cuts. Those earning up to $10,000 would pay 4.75 percent and those earning up to $100,000 would pay 4.90 percent.

The governor proposed those rates to satisfy his campaign pledge that just 3 percent of taxpayers — the upper income earners — would be punished with a tax increase, while the remaining 97 percent would see no reduction or get a tax cut.

Obviously, the tax cuts in the proposal are marginal, while the tax increases are substantial.

Nonetheless, the governor insisted on his proposed rates as a sign of good faith that his progressive-tax plan would not target most taxpayers.

That is, of course, one way to read it. But the legislation Pritzker signed cuts both ways.

Just as legislators acted with ease and speed on the proposed rates, they can act with similar ease and speed to reset them at any level they desire.

This flexibility is exactly what critics of a progressive income tax are talking about when they assert that, if voters approve the tax-hike amendment, they'll be handing the governor and legislators broad taxing power.

Just as Pritzker argues that passing the progressive income tax guarantees "fiscal stability," House Republican Leader Jim Durkin contends that the proposal is "simply the next step in giving Illinois Democrats a blank check for uncontrolled spending for years to come."

Durkin's criticism is a bit too narrow. It's not just Democrats who have over the years made one reckless spending decision after another. They've had plenty of help from Republicans. Indeed, one thing the two parties pretty much agree on is steadily increasing spending, whether there's money to pay for it or not.

The result, of course, is the financial chaos that has paralyzed state government.

Democrats, of course, will be arguing in the coming progressive-tax-amendment campaign that Illinois taxes too little, not that it spends too much. The solution, they say, is to give elected officials the unlimited flexibility the amendment would allow.

Opponents argue that past tax increases demonstrate that the Legislature's profligacy is a major problem and that giving Pritzker and legislators expanded power to tax ensures more of the same.

Voters will have to choose from those two stark and conflicting arguments. If they vote in favor, the new rates will be ready to go but subject to change at any time.