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Column

SPRINGFIELD SPOTLIGHT: Time for lawmakers to walk the talk

Suburban Democrats grandstanding on property tax relief

Rich Miller
Rich Miller

If you listen closely to what Democratic state Reps. Sam Yingling and Jonathan Carroll are saying in public about their opposition to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s graduated income tax proposal, they appear to believe that Pritzker’s proposed tax rates aren’t high enough.

Yingling and Carroll are both demanding significant property tax relief. “In Illinois,” Yingling wrote in the Tribune last week, “the disproportionate reliance on and financial burden of property taxes to fund government – roads and bridges, education, police, fire and other essential services – is devastating.” 

“My constituents are concerned that their taxes will go up without essential property tax relief,” Carroll was quoted as saying.

No sane person would argue that property taxes are too low in this state. Yingling didn’t mention school spending in his letter to the Tribune, but that’s by far the largest item in the local levies. And that’s why both Yingling and Carroll signed on to a resolution during the last General Assembly opposing a proposed shift of pension costs from the state to local school districts, which would’ve driven up property taxes much higher than they already were.

But unless a solution to this mess involves a Bruce Rauner-style elimination of collective bargaining rights for unions, or drastic cuts to school classrooms and to municipal operations (which both Yingling and Carroll would oppose), combined with a wholesale elimination of state mandates and sweeping forced district consolidations, then lowering property taxes right away will require a lot more money from the state. And state money doesn’t grow on trees like it does at the federal level. 

Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, has been working on this issue for years and told me that significant state-funded property tax relief would cost about $7 billion to $8 billion dollars every year. That means almost quadrupling Gov. Pritzker’s proposed $3.4 billion tax hike on upper-income Illinoisans. Or, if the flat tax was kept in place, it would require at least a couple of percentage points added to the current income tax rate, taking it to almost 7 percent for everybody.

Yingling, however, voted against the 2017 income tax increase which ended the state’s 2-year budget impasse. Carroll was not yet appointed to his seat when that bill became law over Rauner’s veto. 

State funding and much more were discussed during the property tax working group meetings set up and facilitated by the governor’s office that both Yingling and Carroll attended – although Carroll reportedly missed the final meeting. Yingling reportedly suggested some ideas, but no agreements could be reached, mainly because if this was so easy it would’ve been done decades ago. 

Property taxes have been a major issue in this state since the 1980s, when the share of the state’s funding of schools started sliding downward and local property taxes started shooting up. A half-point was added to the income tax in 1989 as a sort of “welcoming present” to newly elected Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Half of the increase went to schools and the other half went to local governments. 

But that money eventually got rolled back into GRF and the state did things like cap suburban property tax increases, which, as homeowners in Yingling’s Lake County will certainly attest, obviously didn’t work as advertised.

Yingling passed just four of his House bills this year. None of them were bad ideas, but none would significantly reduce anyone’s property tax bills, either. 

Carroll passed a bill (co-sponsored by Yingling) to place yet another unfunded state mandate on local schools to make sure third-party driver education teachers were properly certified. Those sorts of mandates drive up local taxes. 

Nobody can read minds, but Yingling’s 2017 income tax hike vote probably explains a lot more about his current refusal to support the graduated tax than his stated concerns about property taxes. He perpetually votes like a vulnerable targeted member, even though his district is now pretty safely Democratic. Carroll has a whole lot of high-income constituents in his even more Democratic Northbrook-area district who likely aren’t pleased with the prospect of paying more money to the state. 

The fact that neither legislator bothered to give the governor’s office a courtesy heads-up on their intentions to publicly oppose the plan also speaks volumes.

If these two seriously want to significantly reduce property taxes, then they should introduce a bill to actually do it – and to pay for it. Otherwise, they’re just grandstanding and forcing everyone else do the heavy lifting. 

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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