The likely defection of two House Democrats from Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s push for a graduated income tax put the plan’s backers into damage-control mode Thursday to keep the proposal from taking on any more water.
Pritzker’s top legislative priority has been scrapping the state’s flat income tax in favor of a sliding tax rate scale that would hit highest earners most. The plan passed the Senate earlier this month and is now awaiting a House vote with less than three weeks remaining on the General Assembly’s spring calendar.
By later this month, Democrats will hold only a three-vote cushion to pass the measure in the House. But two Democratic lawmakers from Chicago’s northern suburbs — Reps. Sam Yingling, of Grayslake, and Jonathan Carroll, of Northbrook — both pulled their support for the legislation, giving backers almost no legislative wiggle room for passage.
Asked about the Democratic “no” votes, Pritzker’s office pointedly put the onus on legislative critics — Democrats included — to offer viable alternatives to stabilize the state’s shaky finances.
“Those who oppose this plan are siding with millionaires and the very wealthy against everyday Illinoisans, and they need to offer an alternative that will fix our state’s long-standing fiscal challenges,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement.
Pritzker has a substantial investment riding on the outcome of the House vote.
The governor’s office estimates his graduated tax plan — which he calls a “fair tax” — would net more than $3.3 billion annually in new revenue. The proposal would raise tax rates on wealthier Illinoisans, with the top wage earners being charged 7.99%.
But if lawmakers leave Springfield without voting on the measure or, worse, voting it down, Pritzker would fail his first big governing test and end his inaugural legislative session significantly weakened within the statehouse’s power hierarchy.
The proposed amendment’s chief House sponsor, Rep. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, told WBEZ on Thursday that he remained optimistic of the legislation’s chances.
But he acknowledged at this moment, things appear uncomfortably iffy.
“I believe that the prospects are still good although far from a sure thing,” said Martwick, who said “a great deal of work” remains to secure the necessary 71 House votes to put the graduated income tax proposal before voters for final approval in November 2020.
“I believe it will pass,” he said. “I realize that some representatives have declared themselves as ‘no’ votes, but unless I’m mistaken, those declarations were more along the lines of ‘I’m a no unless … .’”
Martwick said “plenty of time” exists to win final legislative passage and that Pritzker himself is committed to meeting individually with the full contingent of House Democrats in order to win their backing.
Last Monday, House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, told a group of college students in Springfield that he favored the proposed constitutional amendment and that he was “optimistic” it would wind up passing the House.
The opposition from Yingling stems from concerns about how to lessen the property tax burden on Illinoisans.
“We cannot have a conversation about a ‘fair tax’ without simultaneously having a conversation about the unfair property tax system,” he said.
Besides approving the graduated income tax plan, the Senate also passed companion legislation that would freeze school districts’ property tax rates if state government meets certain school-funding thresholds. Yingling said that proposal contains “many holes” and fails to offer meaningful property tax relief, and he suggested the whole package needs several more months to pull together.
“My concern is that we’re going to rush through a half-baked proposal,” Yingling said. “What is sitting on the table now does not solve our structural issues. I cannot support a proposal that doesn’t solve our long-term structural issues, whether it be income tax or property taxes or our overall tax structure. At this moment in time, I do not see a pathway for the current proposal to pass before May 31.”
Carroll also publicly declared his opposition to the graduated income tax plan, calling himself a “hard no” vote. He said his constituents have a greater worry about spiraling property taxes than Illinois’ flat income tax.
“In my district, what we’re seeing just isn’t playing well,” Carroll said. “I listen to what my constituents are saying, and I’ve listened to what feedback I’ve got, and this is just something I’m not comfortable with.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him @davemckinney.