The governor and legislators just can’t resist over-promising and under-delivering on their goal of fixing Illinois’ problem-laden property-tax system.
A month ago, legislators were promising to produce by Dec. 31 a blockbuster report that would recommend how to reduce Illinois’ excessive property taxes.
“Introducing anything less than a substantial overhaul will not be tolerated by the public. This will be a heavy lift, and we’re going to have to make some tough decisions,” said state Rep. Sam Yingling, D-Grayslake, chairman of a task force convened on the issue.
Well, apparently, the toughest decision they decided to make was not to make any tough decisions.
The deadline has come and gone. All that’s been produced so far is more finger-pointing between Democrats and Republicans about which one of the two parties fell the farthest short in producing a set of substantive recommendations.
While disappointing, it’s hardly surprising. This vexing problem has not only defied solution for decades, it’s also defied serious attempts at a solution.
In fact, all that our legislators have done over the years is run the state’s finances into the ground and then watch as local units of government put increasing reliance on property taxes to fund services, most particularly public schools.
While much was made in advance about its potential significance, creation of the 88-member legislative committee on property-tax reform was never anything more than a political sop that Gov. J.B. Pritzker used to persuade reluctant Democrats to put his proposed constitutional amendment replacing the state’s current flat tax mandate with a progressive income tax on the November 2020 ballot.
Where do things stand? A draft report prepared by the Democrats offers little in the way of proposals that reduce property taxes.
As for the Republicans, they’re complaining that most of their proposals for property-tax relief were rejected. Democrats say that’s just not so, that they’re waiting to hear from the GOP about proposed changes to their draft report.
Here’s the problem — the parties are at odds over what to do and can find no common ground.
What a surprise, eh?
The Democratic report calls for, among other things, increased state spending on K-12 schools, a move that might convince local school officials to reduce their property taxes. It also raises the prospect of consolidating hundreds of elementary and high school districts into K-12 “unit” districts and contends that revenue generated by a tax on services could be directed to local schools.
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs lobbed the sharpest criticism at the task force itself. He charged that despite having 88 members, the task force held virtually no meetings and took no votes.Now that sounds like the usual weak and insincere legislative efforts the people of Illinois have come to know and not love. All self-congratulations and self-promotion that labors hardly at all and produces little of use.
Among the GOP proposals put forth were modifications of pension benefits for new public employees, restrictions on unfunded mandates the state places on local units of government and great emphasis on consolidating local units of government.
The legislature is scheduled to reconvene in late January, and property taxes will be a continuing subject of discussion. Pritzker has indicated that addressing the issue is a top priority.
But nothing is likely to come of it because big changes would undermine the political status quo.
But the current situation won’t hold forever because property-tax problems are growing worse, particularly in the Chicago area, where homeowners complain they are causing home values to fall.
In the past, legislators have been able to distance themselves from this vexing issue by pointing fingers at local governments that impose property taxes. But there’s a cause and effect between how the state conducts its business — poorly — and property-tax hikes at the local level.
If, in fact, legislators are serious about taking on this tough issue, the ongoing political fight shows they are failing.