It took a little good ol’ fashioned Illinois political sleight of hand to put a question regarding a graduated income tax before you. But when you vote on the matter a year and a half from now, political tricks aren’t going to be the deciding factor.
You are. Prepare yourself to make a reasoned decision.
If you didn’t know better over the past year, you’d think from the rhetoric on both sides that lawmakers were arguing over whether to convert the state’s flat 4.95% income tax to a graduated system with rates that vary according to a person’s income. But that, of course, is not what they did this week. They merely agreed to put on the November 2020 ballot the question of whether to remove the requirement of a flat tax from the Illinois Constitution. Then, through legislation, they established the rates and income levels that would go into effect if voters remove the flat-tax requirement.
So, the first question you have to consider is whether you think everyone in Illinois should be taxed at the same rate or whether the Legislature should be given the flexibility to approve different tax rates for different levels of income. That’s not an insignificant question. The fact that the concept has attracted labels as different from each other as a “progressive tax,” a “fair tax,” a “jobs tax,” a “blank check” and an “unfair tax” says a lot about what voters have to decide. We’ll all do well to use the next 18 months to consider the matter from all possible vantage points and seriously reflect on what this change could mean.
Part of the consideration will involve the graduated rates approved by the House and Senate this week, but keep in mind that those numbers are not the ultimate issue. They won’t be embedded in the Constitution, but will be subject to the same legislative review and modification involving any law.
This distinction will be just one of many important factors to remember in the coming onslaught of pro and con arguments clamoring for your attention. If it escaped you, that’s understandable, considering that both Democrats and Republicans have been ranting as if it didn’t exist – the one side vowing a new system will be a major step toward solving the state’s budget crisis, the other declaring it will not produce the revenues projected, and both sides infusing their arguments with innuendo, misdirection and conjecture, all of it as if the issue were the numbers and not the constitutional question.
Some people may wonder what it says about Republicans that they fought so hard to block the public from having its say on the flat tax. Others may see portents in the way Democrats, especially in the House, maneuvered to make it possible – replacing two outspoken suburban Democrats at the last minute on a committee taking a key vote, offering the prospect of a property tax task force to warm the feet of and provide political cover for the reluctant, considering a meeting to be a continuation of a session started days before because the term “adjourn” had not been used when the first session broke up.
From all this, everyone can see a vision of what’s in store between now and November 2020. It’s a daunting picture. But what’s reassuring, if you have faith in democracy, is that at least now the matter is in our hands. We, the voters, will decide. We have 18 months to examine it from every angle. Let’s use them well.