Illinois voters face a momentous decision next year.
It's official. After all the posturing, preening and political gamesmanship, the Illinois House has joined the Senate to put a ground-breaking constitutional amendment on the November 2020 ballot.
The measure, if approved by voters, would replace the current mandated flat tax with a progressive one that would apply higher tax rates on higher levels of income.
The measure must receive super-majority support — 60 percent — from the voters to become law. If it does pass, it will be a game-changer in terms of generating new revenue, because legislators will be able to target slivers of voters for tax hikes instead of, as is now the case, imposing a single higher rate on all of them.
There is no minimizing the significance of this action. But what clearly is a policy triumph for Gov. J.B. Pritzker and like-minded Democrats is being misrepresented as a political one.
It's not a great victory because it's not a great surprise. The Senate and the House were always going to vote to put the measure on the ballot. It was only a matter of when.
With super-majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly and Democrats seeing eye-to-eye on the issue, it took no great skill to pass the measure.
It will, however, take great political skill to pass the measure.
Achieving super-majority support on any issue is a steep hill to climb. But this involves the state income tax, a hot topic where voters are rightfully distrustful of anything and everything their elected officials say.
That's why the forthcoming campaign — on both sides — won't be intelligent, thoughtful or reasoned. It will be — in fact, it already is — a political street fight. Proponents of the progressive income tax will vilify the rich as greedy souls who deserve higher taxes. Opponents will counter that the measure discourages economic growth and predict revenue-hungry legislators will soon abandon their pledge to tax only the 3 percent of top earners.
Pritzker's arguments on behalf of the progressive income tax is based on following the aphorism: Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree.
He's pledged to impose higher tax rates on the 3 percent of upper-income earners — those making more than $250,000 a year. Everyone else, he said, either will get a tax cut or pay no more.
Pritzker's tax cuts are microscopic — 0.05 percent for those earning up to $100,000 or 0.20 percent for those earning up to $10,000. Those earning between $100,000 and up to $250,000 will continue to pay the current 4.95 percent rate.
Skeptics contend Pritzker speaks with a forked tongue — that he'll inevitably impose higher taxes on those earning somewhere between $75,000 and up to $250,000 — for two reasons.
Desperate for more revenue to support his social welfare spending plans, Pritzker will have to go where the money is — the great middle class of taxpayers.
That leads to the second reason that explains why Pritzker will target the middle class. Every other state with a progressive income tax slams the middle class. Why would Illinois be different?
While the ins and outs of politics will shape much of the discussion of this controversial proposal, it boils down to a philosophical dispute.
Proponents contend that the more people make, the more they should pay and that progressive rates ensure that happens.
Opponents contend that maintaining a flat income tax rate is hard because raising taxes is — and should be — difficult for legislators. Indeed, that very difficulty will force them to respect taxpayers, spend wisely and carefully guard financial resources before seeking a tax increase.
But it also comes down to a matter of trust.
Will the voters be willing to put this much authority to impose higher tax rates on the same politicians who've driven Illinois into effective bankruptcy.
Maybe they will. Pritzker, obviously, is betting that his many millions of dollars in campaign funds can overcome the trust gap and the 60 percent super-majority requirement to pass the amendment and provide him the free financial hand he so desperately wants.