By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – In the absence of public details regarding a rate structure for Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed graduated income tax, opposing factions are painting starkly different pictures of the proposed change’s potential impact on the state and its residents.
While Republicans say a graduated income tax will put an added burden on the middle class and businesses, Democrats say most Illinoisans – including small businesses – will see a tax reduction if a constitutional amendment passes.
Despite both sides’ best efforts, there’s no way to know who is right until Pritzker or Democrats in the Legislature release a rate structure. Pritzker’s office has said that will happen before the matter comes to a vote.
“As the discussion on the amendment moves forward, the rate structure will be negotiated with the General Assembly before a vote takes place so the public has a full and transparent understanding of the way forward,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said earlier this week.
At a Capitol news conference Wednesday, Illinois House Republicans called for Pritzker to release the rate structure to fully inform the conversation.
“Governor Pritzker, release your rates,” Assistant House Republican Leader Grant Wehrli (R-Naperville) said. “Let the people know what the tax structure is going to look like. And then we can have an informed conversation.”
Even if Pritzker releases those rates soon, it’s not likely to be the “conversation” Wehrli describes. His whole Republican House caucus signed on to a non-binding House Resolution 153 opposing Pritzker’s efforts.
“There is no need for negotiation on this,” Rep. Avery Bourne (R-Raymond) read from the resolution. “Our caucus stands in unanimous opposition to any graduated income tax.”
Instead, the Republicans said they prefer to talk to the governor about reforms, although they didn’t tout any specifically at their news conference. After the meeting, Wehrli said he would prioritize technological integration as necessary reform, noting money could be spent more wisely in that area.
Legislatively, however, Republican opposition isn’t enough to prevent a graduated tax question from advancing – Democrats have the required three-fifths majorities in the Illinois House and Senate to place a question to the voters in the 2020 presidential election cycle. There’s even room for three Democrats in the House and four in the Senate to defect from their caucuses on the matter.
Even so, the question of whether the amendment is ratified will be up to Illinois’ voters – if 60 percent of those voting on the question or a majority of the total voters in the election approve it, the Legislature will have the ability to approve a graduated tax rate.
So the Republican effort launched Wednesday could be more of a public relations effort than a legislative push.
“We are unified in that this is not the solution that Illinois is looking for. And we would welcome the opportunity to take our stance to the voters, and I think it will be well received,” Wehrli said.
That effort began in earnest with a claim that 77 percent of Illinoisans would see their taxes raised under the only public plan so far. They based that number on a House bill introduced – and tabled – by Rep. Robert Martiwick, a Chicago Democrat, in the previous General Assembly without gaining any co-sponsors.
Martwick stood by a graduated tax – because he believes it necessary to stabilize Illinois’ finances – but not his proposed structure when approached after the news conference.
“I don’t want to argue whether or not my rate structure is the right one, because it’s not going to be the rate structure,” Martwick said. “I filed that bill in February 2017 and had no illusions that it was going to be a final solution. I filed it to illustrate how more revenue could be used to solve the fiscal problems in the state.”
Martwick said $3.5 billion of the added revenue from that plan would have gone to property tax relief programs, along with $1 billion each directed to pension payments and sales tax relief. He also said, with the right graduated scale, Illinoisans making less than $50,000 could see income tax relief.
“I signed onto a budget last year that was proposed by my friend Mark Batinick (R-Plainfield) that would have been a cuts-only budget,” Martwick said. “I think it’s a horrible idea, but I think the only thing worse than a cuts-only budget is a budget (with a $3.2 billion structural deficit). Because all we’re doing is we’re pushing a tax increase on future generations.”
The “budget” was another non-binding resolution which encouraged cuts, and Martwick and Batinick were the only two names on it.
With a Democratic governor and supermajorities in both chambers, however, cuts are hardly part of the current graduated tax discussion, which state Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat who is carrying the constitutional amendment in the Illinois Senate, believes will start next week.