'Fair tax' faces high bar: New video

Constitution change required to move past regressive ‘flat tax,’ and it’s intentionally difficult

By Ted Cox

Gov. Pritzker’s “fair tax” has to hurdle a high bar to be enacted.

Pritzker ran on a campaign based on moving the state from its current “flat tax” of 4.95 percent for everyone to a “progressive tax” or a graduated income tax that would call on higher earners to pay a higher share of their wages in taxes, while providing relief to others.

As a billionaire, Pritzker didn’t shy from pointing out that, under a flat tax rate, the more one earns, the less of a percentage of overall income one pays in taxes, with the very rich paying a minuscule amount of their overall income. That’s why it’s also known as a regressive tax, and why Pritzker has labeled a graduated income tax a “fair tax.”

He carried that through to his first budget address last month, saying, “It is not fair that I pay the same tax rate as a teacher, a child-care worker, a police officer, or a nurse. … The state needs a fair tax, and I am going to be relentless in pursuing one over the next two years.”


“It is not fair that I pay the same tax rate as a teacher, a child-care worker, a police officer, or a nurse.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

It may not take exactly that long, but at best for those advocating a progressive income tax it will be 18 months from now.

That’s because, as Zachary Sigelko of One Illinois points out in his latest explainer video, the state passed the flat tax as part of its sixth and current constitution in 1970. That also set a deliberately difficult process for amending the constitution, the better to grant business and politics some stability in how the government’s business gets done.

The Illinois Constitution allows for two ways to amend it. The first is to call another constitutional convention, and some have advocated that, but it would mean reconsidering everything in the document, not just the flat tax, and opponents point out it would be prone to much of the same special-interest lobbying that already plagues the political system.

The General Assembly can move to tack an amendment on to the constitution, but again the process is intentionally difficult. Both the House and the Senate must pass the amendment by three-fifths “supermajorities,” and then it’s put to the voters in the next general election. They too must pass it by a three-fifths majority, or by a vote of a simple majority of the total ballots cast — because amendments, like referendums, tend to be overlooked by voters concentrating on actual races for office.

The next general election in Illinois is set for November 2020 so, as President Trump figures to be running for re-election, there will be much to distract voters from a constitutional amendment.

At the same time, a radical change in the tax system also figures to attract special-interest lobbying in the form of scary political attack ads in these turbulent times following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, which threw political fundraising open to corporate interest and so-called “dark money” political action committees that don’t need to report where their funding comes from.

Other states have found it difficult to pass even common-sense measures like a progressive income tax in the face of such a high bar for passage. Yet the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability has found that Illinois could cut taxes for 98 percent of its residents and raise $2 billion by moving to a bracketed tax system like that of Minnesota, which has generated a thriving economy with four simple tax brackets and a top tax rate of 9.85 percent for top wage earners. Frank Manzo IV of the Economic Policy Institute has testified before the General Assembly on much the same findings.

Whether those arguments prevail with the public will play out over the next year and a half.