Zalewski: Little consensus around property tax reform
Rep. Michael Zalewski, chairman of the House Revenue and Finance Committee, talks about property tax reform during an interview with Capitol News Illinois.
House revenue chairman responds to GOP criticism about lack of movement
By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD — The chairman of the House Revenue and Finance Committee said this week that a task force set up last year to provide proposals for reforming the state’s property tax system was unable reach a consensus.
“We have a hodgepodge of ideas, what everyone thinks is the magic bullet to solve the problem,” state Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, said in a podcast interview with Capitol News Illinois. “There's no real one solution that I think is going to offer comprehensive, one-size-fits-all relief. And as a result of that, you have things like the Property Tax (Relief) Task Force where you have all these ideas that come together and no one can gain a majority to author a finalized report.”
Zalewski was responding to criticism leveled earlier in the week by House Republicans who complained the task force never issued a final report, which was due Jan. 1, and that Democratic leaders in the House won’t allow hearings on related Republican-sponsored bills.
The formation of a task force was part of a package of legislation enacted last year that helped secure support for a proposed constitutional amendment to replace the state’s current “flat” income tax system. That amendment would allow for a graduated income tax levying higher tax rates on higher levels of income.
It is a key priority for Democratic Governor JB Pritzker, but vehemently opposed by most Republicans who argue it would make raising taxes easier in Illinois. During a news conference on Tuesday, they argued Democrats never intended for it to accomplish anything.
“The Democrats deliberately used it and hijacked it to press for the further expansion of other taxes, particularly the income tax,” Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, said during that press event. “I wish I could say I was surprised. But frankly the Democrats’ approach to that task force was a farce from the very beginning. And despite House Republican efforts to bring forth several of their ideas on property tax relief, our ideas were summarily dismissed by the Democrats who control the task force.”
Pritzker and other Democrats have said the new money generated through a graduated income tax — estimated at more than $3 billion a year after it’s fully phased in — could be used to increase the state’s share of funding for public schools, thereby reducing school districts’ reliance on local property taxes.
And Zalewski disputed the idea that Democrats were summarily rejecting GOP proposals.
“There were some things that I saw out of that Republican press conference that aren't bad. Use-it-or-lose-it isn't a bad idea,” he said, referring to a proposal by Republican Rep. Dan Ugaste, of Geneva, to cap the amount of money school districts can hold in reserve.
Zalewski said one other Republican-backed proposal he could support is expanding certain property tax exemptions for seniors and other homeowners that limit how much of their property value is subject to taxation.
One he said he would not favor, though, is imposing a property tax “freeze” on local governments.
“I think it was proven to be not great,” he said.
Zalewski said he is also interested in proposals to make school districts more efficient, including the possibility of consolidating elementary and high school districts into “unit” districts. That could be hard to sell in many communities, including his hometown of Riverside, he added.
“I live in Riverside School District 96, elementary, and Riverside School District 208, high school,” he said. “And and I will say anecdotally, people complain about the property taxes around my neck of the woods. But I also think they really want good schools. People moved to Riverside for the nature of the schools. So that's the conundrum we face right now.”