State lawmakers will start returning to their perches in Springfield Jan. 23. What can Illinoisans expect?
2017 left a bad taste in the mouths of many. The year began with an impasse and ended in a torrent of treacherous policy choices. In exchange for waiting out a historic budget logjam, Illinoisans were rewarded with the largest permanent income tax hike in the Land of Lincoln’s history. And state lawmakers couldn’t even balance the budget with that extra money, as they made not a single significant spending reform.
This year is different. With statewide elections in November, the 2018 forecast calls for gridlock.
House Speaker Mike Madigan will aim to block anything that could be perceived as a “win” for Gov. Bruce Rauner. This hurts Illinoisans in two major ways: The first being the largest tax they pay, the property tax, will likely continue to grow at an alarming clip.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show property taxes grew six times faster than household incomes in Illinois from 2008 to 2015. That growth is squeezing family budgets across the state. The real property tax burden – property taxes paid as a share of income – grew by nearly 38 percent.
Those who checked their local newspaper at the end of 2017 were bound to see news of local governments voting to raise those bills even higher. Instead of imposing a property tax freeze and providing tools for those bodies to more effectively manage their costs, state lawmakers will more than likely continue to sit on their hands while they chain those of local leaders – ensuring property taxes continue to go up.
And good luck slipping reform past a House speaker intent on winning back the governor’s seat for his party.
The second way Madigan’s game hurts Illinoisans is that legislation will be driven not by the most pressing policy matters, but by what can be used as an election-year cudgel.
That could include a proposal to hike Illinois’ minimum wage. Regardless of the economic effects of such a move, recall Illinois Democrats enjoyed recent years of supermajority control of the General Assembly and the governorship yet did not touch the issue. This is politics.
It will also likely include discussions to scrap Illinois’ constitutionally protected flat income tax – one of the only pro-growth policies left unsullied in the state – in favor of a progressive tax structure. This is already being sold as a way to make the rich pay their fair share. What proponents won’t tell you is that bringing peer states’ progressive tax structures to Illinois means a massive middle class tax hike.
And they won’t tell you that Illinois can ill afford to make it more expensive to live here. The state is currently experiencing a severe outmigration problem, losing nearly 643,000 residents on net to other states since 2010. That makes the surging cost of government even more expensive for those who stick around.
The Trojan horse that is the progressive tax doesn’t require the governor’s signature, but rather a three-fifths majority vote in the House and Senate, after which voters would have to approve the change at the ballot box.
Illinoisans should also keep their eyes peeled for discussion of marijuana legalization. It’s a worthy debate to be sure – especially in a state with a criminal justice system that produces eminently poor outcomes and some of the nation’s worst finances – but in 2018 it will be staged primarily for political purposes.
In all likelihood, none of these three proposals will pass this year. They will simply suck up air.
In the meantime, homeowners will be gasping for breath. And many more will seek refreshing opportunity in greener pastures.
There is a glimmer of hope, however. Illinoisans should take heart in the fact that the 2017 income tax hike vote spurred a political exodus, driven by grassroots participation in the political process. Thirty-three lawmakers already are certain not to return to their seats in 2019, without anyone casting a single ballot.
Speak up. Tell your lawmaker what issues he or she should focus on, and don’t relent.
What’s there to lose?
• Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network. Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.