With the spring legislative session hitting full stride in the wake of a primary election and an eye toward November, it’s not at all surprising to hear so much talk from Springfield about the way the state will tax its residents to fund the government.
One volley in the war of words and ideas came Tuesday when House Minority Leader Jim Durkin and all but one of 51 Republican House members signed a resolution opposing a shift from a flat tax – right now all Illinoisans pay an income tax rate of 4.95 percent – toward a system where people pay different rates based on their taxable income.
Republicans, including Gov. Bruce Rauner, framed their stance as opposition to Democratic gubernatorial nominee J.B. Pritzker. According to The Associated Press, Pritzker has suggested a higher rate for higher levels of income. He hasn’t floated specific rates, but generally backs the idea that those who earn more are better positioned to have a greater percentage of their income taxed.
This is a bare-bones description of the situation, and we’re not taking a stance at this juncture about which position is better for the people of Illinois. Although we will note Reps. Jerry Long, R-Streator, and David Welter, R-Morris, signed the resolution. The lone House Republican who didn’t was David Harris of Arlington Heights, who is not seeking re-election and said he wants to hear his constituents’ views before deciding his position.
What we will do is put out a plea for both voters and politicians to keep in mind one core fact as the tax structure discussion continues throughout the session and campaign season: the 1970 state constitution ensures a flat tax rate unless voters agree to a constitutional amendment.
That process is difficult – as well it should be, given the lasting implications of altering such a fundamental document. Both the state House and Senate would need to ratify the amendment with 60 percent of the members in favor, and the issue would then – after a six-month waiting period – be placed on a statewide ballot, where it again would require a 60 percent yes vote to pass.
Republicans are within their rights to stake out a pre-emptive position against a well-positioned Democratic candidate. It’s a sound campaign strategy. But we’re not too far removed from Rauner taking shots for implying he’s not “in charge” of Illinois, a statement he made to impugn House Speaker Michael Madigan and his ability to throttle legislation that undercuts his agenda. As such, we want voters to remember they, too, have a seat at the table, and no one candidate or elected official can enact such a significant reform unilaterally.
In fact, there already are three pieces of legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to change the tax structure pending in the Legislature, although none are in line for a vote. That’s an indicator Madigan either doesn’t support the idea or doesn’t see it as the savvy move at this juncture.
Voters who feel strongly about the issue one way or the other need to look at the current and potential future composition of each chamber and consider whether an amendment is likely to advance based on who is elected in November.
In other words, even if Pritzker defeats Rauner, would the laws already proposed be put up for a real vote? If so, are there enough Democrats in favor to force the issue to a general election ballot? Right now, Democrats hold 37 of 59 Senate seats, almost 63 percent. But they have only 67 of 118 House seats, so would need to pick up four more to have enough to clear the 60 percent threshold.
The topic certainly warrants discussion, and again, Republicans are not wrong to raise partisan concerns about what a Pritzker administration might attempt. Likewise, Rauner’s attempts to enact term limits, pension reform and changes to the way legislative districts are drawn all have been occasions to review what the constitution allows.
Average voters do still hold power in Illinois, although at times that doesn’t feel true. As we head into campaign season, let’s all take the time to remember the weight of a single vote.