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Column

EYE ON ILLINOIS: GOP leaders wise to explore reconsidering tax question

On Monday, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin and Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady called for lawmakers to vote on pulling off November’s ballot a proposal to shift from a flat to a graduated income tax rate.

Economic conditions shifted drastically in the 51 weeks since the House approved the ballot question, primarily due to the COVID-19 outbreak, making it fair for Republicans to consider whether the measure would pass today.

The measure got all 40 Democratic votes in the Senate, where it required 36. The House vote also split on party lines, but with 71 votes needed and 73 obtained, Durkin and Brady are playing wisely.

Eighteen House Democrats have general election opponents, as do two seeking state Senate seats. Forcing those incumbents into reasserting their support is a more targeted approach to defeating the issue than what surely will be needed come fall.

Though a pre-emptive strike may be good strategy, Gov. J.B. Pritzker isn’t without a counter. Step one is convincing voters of his numbers promising an extra $3 billion in annual state revenue, and that 97 percent of Illinoisans earning less than $250,000 will pay the current rate or less. Step two is rousting broad support by suggesting the wealthiest Illinoisans will help fund recovery, an appealing message at a time when many folks have lost significant earning potential. 

Financial times have changed, but that evolution isn’t stopping. Lawmakers can’t even begin to guess the public education budget needs when no one knows which schools can open in August. Perhaps the Department of Natural Resources will need less money if usage is down due to coronavirus closures. Maybe state employment numbers will be up if there is a need for permanent, full-time contact tracers, or if the court system needs a boost in order to safely process the coronavirus backlog.

Those are just a few public sector concerns. Business owners able to navigate the early months of the pandemic might yet be financially devastated once they start to negotiate group health insurance rates for the coming fiscal year. Few people in agriculture feel safe making any sort of projections about the 2020 harvest, let alone ongoing disruptions in the meat and dairy supply chains. If more Illinoisans need or want to work from home, the broadband internet infrastructure will have to be improved.

Unfortunately Illinois can’t provide answers for all these questions. Not only is the virus unpredictable, but Congressional action could make or break state budgets. 

The graduated tax vote is now inextricably linked to coronavirus response. The question is whether Republicans can force that debate back to Springfield, or if they have to wage the battle statewide. Points to the leaders for forcing the issue.

SCOTT T. HOLLAND writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at tsloup@shawmedia.com.

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