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Larry Lough

Plain fact is, it’s an opinionated world

Separating fact from opinion is not as easy as it sounds.

But then, maybe you have a different opinion. Someone always does.

We try to allow people who write letters and columns for our Opinion page to have their say – as long as it’s clearly opinion or provable fact.

Some writers, however, base opinions on disputable – or even refutable – “facts.” We sometimes ask them to provide a source for their questionable assertions that are presented as factual.

Lots of gray area there.

FOR EXAMPLE, JUST a couple of weeks ago we published a guest column by Arthur I. Cyr of Northbrook, who is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin.

Before he delved too deeply into his analysis of European politics, he took this short detour:

“Democratic President Barack Obama’s obstinate refusal to negotiate with Republican House Speaker John Boehner brought the United States to the very brink of financial default.”

We received a letter this week from a reader who also blamed the president.

Some people would disagree with that assessment, arguing that it was Boehner’s obstinate insistence on the repeal or delay of the Affordable Care Act that threatened default (and caused a partial shutdown of the government for a couple of weeks).

You probably agree with one of those statements, depending on which side of this nation’s great partisan divide you happen to reside.

Even though they are stated as fact, are each of those opposing views really a matter of opinion?

Although the issues involved are behind us (for now), the actual facts involved are worth reviewing.

You might disagree.

SOME THINGS WE know about that October showdown in Washington are indisputable.

The president had said for months that he would not negotiate over short-term government funding or raising the debt ceiling.

House Republicans wanted concessions as a condition for their votes on both matters. Their concessions originally involved Obamacare, but later moved to matters of federal spending.

The House has every right to pass whatever legislation it wants. The Senate has every right to reject or amend any legislation that the House sends over.

Eventually, for laws to be made, the two chambers must settle their differences.

That’s how legislating works – when it does.

SO, WHAT HAPPENED to end the stalemate, reopen the government, and raise the debt ceiling?

If the president’s position “brought the United States to the very brink of financial default,” then he must have changed his mind and decided to negotiate (something) to resolve the conflict.

But if Boehner’s position was responsible, then he would have had to drop his demands to avert default.

As we know, it was Boehner – despite the wishes of the most conservative members of his caucus – who gave in, which led to resolution.

So why would Professor Cyr, whose academic field is political science, and others continue to contend that the obstinacy of Obama was to blame? Did he make the Republicans insist on conditions? Can someone explain that logic?

When it comes to politics, sometimes facts don’t matter.

That’s the editor’s opinion.

POLITICS PLAYED A role in another recent war of words.

A Republican named Jeff McKinley, who is seeking his party’s nomination in Illinois House District 71, issued a news release that criticized incumbent Democrat Mike Smiddy for supporting a state constitutional amendment that could lead to a graduated income tax in Illinois.

We reported last week that although Smiddy had not endorsed a graduated tax table with specific rates, McKinley asserted that the Democrat was “calling for a radical tax hike plan ... a tax hike on 85% of Illinois families, according to the nonpartisan Illinois Policy Institute.”

The next day, we reported McKinley had backed off his rhetoric when he conceded that Smiddy had not actually voiced support for any plan that would enact higher tax rates. But then the Republican sent us a letter, which we published Thursday, to clarify his position.

In it, he said our follow-up story was based on a “misunderstanding” with reporter David Giuliani, “because I didn’t intend and do not retract/withdraw any statements or press releases made by my campaign.”

If Illinois adopts a graduated income tax, McKinley argued in his letter, “Nonpartisan analyses of various forms of this plan indicate this graduated tax hike is likely to impact up to 85 percent of all Illinois families.”

Let’s try to untangle a few facts and opinions.

FIRST, THE ILLINOIS Policy Institute is not explicitly involved in electoral politics. But in this state’s public policy war, it is an active and ideological partisan.

You don’t have to do much research to connect the dots between the IPI and national conservative movements (and funding sources). To get an idea of who the IPI represents, ask for a list of its donors – and see how far that gets you.

Second, the IPI’s “analyses” seem, so far, to be focused on a proposal by state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana, for a graduated income tax, along with graduated income taxes from other states.

Jakobsson’s proposal is not legislation because the state constitution requires a flat income tax. The constitutional amendment that is supported by Smiddy would change that – if Illinois voters approved it and the Legislature enacted a new income tax code.

And third, while the IPI might warn that Rep. Jakobsson’s plan would increase taxes on 85 percent of Illinois families, the Democratic legislator insists it would represent a tax decrease for 83 percent of families.

Are those facts – or opinions?

Call it “modern math.”

REP. JAKOBSSON computes her numbers based on the Illinois income tax rate of 5 percent, which individuals now pay.

She says her graduated tax plan would not impose a tax of 5 percent or greater on anyone earning less than $106,000 a year – so 83 percent of families would see a tax cut.

The IPI computes its projected increase on a base income tax rate of 3.75 percent – the level where the rate is scheduled to fall in 2015.

When the Legislature increased the income tax to 5 percent (from 3 percent) a couple of years ago, it was presented as a temporary increase – sort of. The rate is supposed to drop, but not all the way back to 3 percent.

Rep. Jakobsson’s plan would establish an income tax of 4 percent on earnings starting at $18,000; about 85 percent of households have incomes above that. So they would see an increase – if the rate is allowed to drop to 3.75 percent in 2015.

Republicans fought that 2011 tax increase, arguing that it would become permanent once it became law. Given the state’s shaky financial condition, they’re probably right.

So, it’s a tax increase for most of us if we follow the IPI’s math, and a tax decrease if we use Rep. Jakobsson’s variables.

And that is a fact. We think.