Over the last two weeks I have published a bunch of posts outlining my opposition to the graduated income tax amendment or as our Governor incorrectly calls it” the fair tax amendment.” You can read them here. What I’ve realized as a result is that its even simpler than I thought. So, channeling Douglas Adams, this is my 5th post in my 4-part series.
In order to understand the Governors proposed tax program, it is important to separate his two very separate proposals. The first is an amendment to the Illinois constitution which grants lawmakers sweeping new powers to change the way Illinois citizens are taxed. The second is a legislative proposal indicating how the amendment will first be used to increase taxes for some and lower taxes for others.
We have all heard the TV ads within which proponents of the “Fair Tax Amendment” talk about increasing the tax rate for the top 3% of earners and reducing it for everyone else. Yet the new wording proposed for the Illinois Constitution doesn’t mention top-3% this or tax-cuts that. These details are not part of the amendment. The Governor’s proposed amendment very simply removes the flat tax requirement and allows the legislature to increase – or lower – taxes on any group at-will.
The Governor’s second proposal is to use these new legislative powers to immediately increase taxes from 4.95% to 8% for earners making more than $250,000 per year and to decrease everyone else’s tax rate from 4.95% to 4.9%. This, he promises, will 1) ensure that rich people “finally pay their fair share” (his words) and 2) eliminate the State’s deficit, leading ultimately to a reduction in the State’s debt.
We need that first one – the constitutional amendment – before the benefits of the second one – the legislative proposal – are possible. Unfortunately, those two benefits still aren’t possible as currently written. Only one can be true – and the governor knows it.
If you dig in (math shared at end of post), you will see that the numbers associated with the Governor’s program do not come close to eliminating the deficit. That “finally fair tax program” will only increase the State’s revenue by $3 billion – far short of the $6 billion annual deficit. As a result, the State will need to continue borrowing, at higher and higher interest rates, and the debt will continue to grow, and the State’s financial situation will continue to worsen.
OR…on the other hand, with the new legislative powers that the amendment provides, the State could say “to hell with fair and promises,” and legislate increases large enough to reduce the debt. The Governor’s tax rate details are not written in stone. The Legislature could enact them for a year and pick something much more aggressive the following session or just scrap the promises altogether and raise rates across the board now.
So what gives? Is the Governor trying to enact a tax program that is finally fair, or use the amendment to raise taxes to pay-off the State’s debt? The answer is likely neither.
Opponents of the program – and even some supporters – recognize that the Amendment marketing has not been completely honest. The Governor is looking for an additional revenue stream, and this amendment gets him one. It is understood that, the increased revenue will be directed at regular state services (including unchecked inefficiency and graft) and reduce borrowing. Despite promises, it was never intended to fix underfunded pensions or eliminate the deficit. It is a short-term solution to generate cash and in a few years it will be absorbed, Illinois debt will be pushing $80 billion, new sources of revenue will be needed, and that tax amendment will be right there, all warmed up ,and ready to facilitate another round of tax increases, this time much less “fair” and more widely shared.
The amount of money our state needs is big and growing and the three percenter’s pie is just not big enough to solve the problem. Everyone from middle-class on-up will eventually pay a higher rate as a result of this amendment. The usual suspects (Increasing debt service, unfunded pensions, growing entitlements, ballooning – yet ineffective – police departments and school districts) will continue to put pressure on coffers. Tax rates will rise for everyone, additional tax tiers will be introduced each with its own tax details, and 50% or even 100% of retirement income will be taxed at regular income levels. Within three to ten years of this amendment’s passage all Illinoisans will be paying higher state taxes, and some may be paying twice what they pay today.
“So, Jackass,” as my detractors may ask “what is the alternative? We can’t do nothing and isn’t this something?” Nope! The act of creating less than nothing does not make it something! Educated voters need to discern between programs which improve the fiscal health of our State and those that hurt it – regardless of promises. A tax amendment that is sold on the promise of reducing the state’s debt but in fact increases the state’s debt is not a step in the right direction. It is not something.
But, as Crain’s (I think?) pointed out last week, there may be a silver lining here. The failure of this amendment may signal a step forward for the Governor. Prior G, Bruce Rauner’s, message to state legislators was clear, if you can reduce waste, demonstrate commitment to fiscal responsibility, and pass pension reform, Illinoisans will pass a bipartisan tax increase. Before coughing up cash or turning over additional power, Illinoisans deserve proof that our legislators have turned the corner on governmental waste and that buying votes with taxpayer dollars is no longer acceptable.
If a failed graduated tax amendment in 2020 was followed by graduated tax amendment AND a pension reform amendment in 2021, taxpayers would feel a lot safer accepting it.
Here are the numbers to which I am referring. Illinois typically runs about a $6 billion dollar deficit. With COVID, 2020 will mark about a $7.5 billion shortfall. Illinois’s debt is currently at about $64 billion and growing at $6-7.5 billion per year. Without intervention, it is scheduled to hit $100 billion in 5 years.
The new tax program, proposed by the Governor, and requiring the Amendment to enact, increases the tax rate to 8% from 4.95% for earners making more than $250,000 per year and to decrease everyone else is tax right from 4.95% to 4.9%. This equates to a tax reduction for a family making $100,000/year by $1 per week, and a proposed increase in revenue of $3 billion. The State’s debt will continue to grow under this program by $3-$4.5 billion per year.
The Governor has stated that 8% is the “finally fair” tax rate for rich people even though this is insufficient to make a dent in our debt. In fact, the State’s debt is so big that at a “unfair” tax rate of 15% it would still take one full generation to pay off the debt.