Eye On Illinois: Another run at tax change likely doomed from the start

Memo to Speaker Welch: The people have spoken — loudly.

Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch raised eyebrows last week during an online session with the Economic Club of Chicago. While answering questions about Illinois’ unfunded pension liability (pegged at $144 billion), the rookie House speaker implied the General Assembly should revisit amending the state Constitution by dumping the flat income tax rate, this time linking new graduated tax rates to attacking pension debt.

Welch didn’t float percentages or dollar amounts, according to Greg Hinz, of Crain’s Chicago Business, but did say income tax discussion will persist.

“If we don’t change (the current flat tax) ... we’re going to be talking about this in another five years,” Welch said.

Friday, Hinz moderated another event and pressed Welch on the topic. Although the speaker is resolute the current tax code is “unfair to working families,” change isn’t imminent.

“Welch described (earlier remarks) as ‘spitballing,’ saying he only was talking about what might happen ‘if’ the subject returned again,” Hinz wrote, adding it’s unlikely the 2022 election would have a tax change referendum.

In November, 57.54% of Illinoisans supported Democrat Joe Biden’s successful White House bid. At the same time, 53.27% voted against changing the tax code. In raw numbers, it was 3,471,915 votes for Biden, and 3,059,411 against what would’ve indisputably been Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s signature first-term accomplishment.

Amending the state constitution requires a 60% supermajority, so the tax amendment was about 14 points away from winning. In terms of statewide referenda, this was an historic dud.

Voters approved one amendment in 2016 and two others in 2014, when they also backed three advisory questions. The last time voters rejected a statewide ballot measure was 2012, a proposal to establish a 60% threshold for the General Assembly or local governments to increase employee pension benefits. But that measure won the popular vote, as it were, with 56% in favor.

The tax amendment’s failure is modest only in comparison to a 2008 vote on whether to conduct a constitutional convention. Only 32.77% percent backed that option. (Here’s guessing the “no” side loses some of its 67.23% when the issue comes up again in 2028.)

An opposition movement spent tens of millions of dollars in advertising to defeat the graduated income tax; those same forces surely would redouble efforts if Democrats take another swing. Pritzker can scarcely afford to be on the same ballot as something so widely unpopular in 2022.

Promising to allocate new revenue to pension debt doesn’t seem a winning argument, given a rich history of sweeping supposedly dedicated state funds to tackle general deficits.

Voters want the pension crisis solved, but it seems clear they’ve foreclosed this particular path.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.