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Former gubernatorial candidate Biss stumps for ‘fair tax’

State Journal Register

Monday, April 15, 2019  |  Article  |  Steven Spearie

Taxes, Graduated/Progressive

Former Democratic candidate for governor Daniel Biss said he has heard the doomsday predictions about what will happen to Illinois if it adopts a graduated income tax — how the wealthy will flee the state.

 

In a presentation to about 50 people Sunday at the University of Illinois Springfield, Biss said the state’s goal in “designing a tax policy should not be to make it as cheap as possible for wealthy people but to make it as attractive as possible for everybody.”

 

Biss, a former state senator from the Chicago area, came in second in last spring’s Democratic gubernatorial primary to J.B. Pritzker. Now, Biss backs Gov. Pritzker’s plan for a graduated income tax, which would get rid of the state’s flat tax rate and assign different rates to residents depending on their income.

 

Biss said Illinois has one of the most regressive tax systems of any state.

 

“The people at the top are paying roughly half their share of the income than the people at the bottom are paying,” Biss said. “So if you’re making $1 million, you’re paying on average 7 percent of your income. But if you’re living in poverty, you’re paying about 15 percent. That doesn’t seem right.

 

“It’s not structured this way in other states. It’s an artifact of the system we have in place now.”

 

That artifact, he said, is “an odd anomaly” that was put into the Illinois constitution when it was adopted in 1970. Now, “we’re stuck almost 50 years later with a tax system that doesn’t work for the modern economy,” Biss said.

 

To put a graduated income tax into place, the full Senate and House both need to approve a constitutional amendment with three-fifths majority votes. Voters would have a say about ratification, most likely on the November 2020 ballot.

 

Last week, the amendment passed out of the Senate committee by a 12-5 vote, along party lines.

 

Under the graduated income tax plan proposed by Pritzker, 97 percent of taxpayers would pay the same or less while getting property tax relief and a child tax credit, if applicable, the governor’s office says.

 

Only people making more than $250,000 will see a tax increase, Pritzker’s office says.

 

Republicans and business interests have rallied hard against the proposal, saying the wealthy will look for ways to shield income or just leave Illinois in favor of a lower-tax state. Opponents also worry that while Pritzker’s current rate structure only raises taxes on high earners, there would be nothing stopping lawmakers from increasing middle-class tax rates in the future.

 

Republicans also have said they worry the extra money generated by the graduated tax would essentially be a “blank check” that doesn’t address the root of the state’s financial problems.

 

Biss, a former assistant mathematics professor at the University of Chicago before jumping into politics, said cutting spending isn’t an option for the state anymore.

 

“I have bad news for people who hoped to do that — it can’t be done,” Biss said. “The math doesn’t add up.

 

“We’ve made deep cuts to schools, to higher education, human services, health care. The operation of government is hollowed out. Those cuts have happened and yet the deficit remains.”

 

Scott Cross, founder of Indivisible Illinois, a chapter of the national organization, Indivisible, said he, like Biss, doesn’t buy the argument the wealthy or businesses would leave Illinois.

 

“What businesses are actually going to do,” Cross said, “is that they’re going to come to Illinois because our financial house is in order, because we’re able to balance our budget, because the minimum wage is being raised, because we’re actually offering an opportunity for skilled workers.

 

Sarah Jewett, a nurse from Chatham, said the graduated tax is music to her ears.

“I’ve been concerned, as many people have been, about the budget for a long time, and I know there’s no way financially to make enough cuts to make it work out,” she said following the presentation.

 

“Even if you’re someone who’s going to be paying more, you should be looking at it in terms of, what am I getting out of this? What kind of environment am I getting to live in because I pay these taxes? There’s a lot you’re getting for paying into those taxes.”

 

“I think this something in general people need to be more aware of,” added Mike Profilet, who drove from Normal for the presentation. “I think it’s a good concept and in the long run I think it will pay dividends for the state and for the quality of life and it’ll raise more revenue and I think that’s the ultimate goal from those who can pay it.”

 

Biss, an interview afterward, said he is working with the organization Rust Belt Rising that trains Democratic candidates in six Midwestern states in finding economic messages that connect with Rust Belt voters.

 

He acknowledged that even in his first political campaign in 2008 for state representative, he was stumping for the “fair tax.”

 

“When I got to the state legislature in 2010 and I saw the huge budget problems, I saw this issue was incredibly important,” Biss said. “Now we have a realistic shot of getting it done, and I want to be a part of making it happen.”

 

Biss said it will be a difficult task, especially against well-funded opposition that includes two dark money organizations.

 

“Our job is to be an army of truth, pushing back against that,” Biss said.