Guzzardi, Weaver spar over population tax flight
Sen. Sims asks GOP lawmakers, ‘Where’s the plan?’
By Ted Cox
CHICAGO — Democratic and Republican state lawmakers debated Gov. Pritzker’s proposed “fair tax” appropriately enough on tax day Monday at a City Club of Chicago luncheon.
Rep. Will Guzzardi and Sen. Elgie Sims, both Chicago Democrats, defended the proposed move to a graduated income tax, while Rep. David McSweeney of Barrington Hills and Sen. Chuck Weaver of North Peoria, both Republicans, tried to poke holes in it.
Guzzardi called a progressive income tax “the best solution before us” to raise necessary revenue, while McSweeney and Weaver tried to label it “a middle-class tax,” even though Pritzker has insisted that it would actually cut taxes or keep them level for 97 percent of Illinois taxpayers.
“Under this tax plan, less than 3 percent of taxpayers would be affected,” Sims said.
Guzzardi and Weaver sparred most aggressively over whether the tax would prompt rich residents to flee the state.
“Those folks leave,” Weaver said.
“That’s just not true,” Guzzardi charged. “I’m sorry.”
According to Guzzardi, Minnesota hiked its top tax rate on its wealthiest citizens, yet saw the number of taxpayers earning $200,000 or more rise 28 percent from 2013 to 2016.
Weaver tried to attribute that to the overall improvement in the economy in the years following the Great Recession, but Sims made reference to a recent Better Government Association study in pointing out, “The last time we raised income taxes,” with a flat rate the same for all residents, “we saw low-income people leave the state.” That, he said, is because poor and middle-class taxpayers were paying a higher percentage of their earnings than top earners. He called a flat tax “fundamentally unfair.”
McSweeney called for budget cuts instead, saying, “We need spending reform. We need a constitutional amendment on pensions,” that would allow retirement benefits to be cut.
Pointing out that “discretionary” state spending on essentials like education and public safety would require a 15 percent cut across the board, Guzzardi said, “There’s no realistic solution based on cuts.”
Weaver responded, “15 percent, nobody wants that, but there has to be a place in the middle” between raising taxes and cutting spending.
Sims insisted cuts had been made, adding, “We’re not just cutting fat anymore. We’re hitting muscle and bone.” He charged that drastic spending cuts had been tried under former Gov. Rauner, who was “hell bent on hollowing out state government.”
“I’m the wrong person to defend Bruce Rauner,” said McSweeney, who insisted he was one of Rauner’s harshest GOP critics. “He did do nothing.”
Weaver offered a stronger defense of the last governor, saying, “This guy did everything he could for reform,” but the General Assembly resisted.
Sims pointedly charged that Republicans had yet to offer any sort of concrete counterproposal to the fair tax. “Where’s the plan?” Sims said. “I have yet to see a Republican bill outlining their plan for the budget.”
Guzzardi granted, “We haven’t yet made any headway in making this a bipartisan issue.”
McSweeney promised to deliver, but couched it in calling for direct negotiations with Gov. Pritzker.
He called the “fair tax” “really just a code phrase for a massive tax raise in the future,” adding, “The real plan here is to continue to raise taxes.”
“This will become a middle-income tax,” Weaver insisted, but he and McSweeney had no real answer to a question from the audience that asked if their fearmongering was just an attempt to get middle-class taxpayers to vote against their own self-interests.
“The overall bucket of taxation feels high, and that’s a valid point,” Guzzardi said. But he called the fair tax “the only long-term solution on the table to lower property taxes.”
“The only way to lower property taxes is to raise the state’s share of education funding,” he added. Guzzardi called a graduated income tax “a realistic, long-term solution to our high property taxes.”
McSweeney returned to his pet issue in response, saying, “The answer to property taxes goes back to pension reform.”
Guzzardi called the state’s pension obligation “a moral question,” and asked whether the state’s budget should be balanced on the backs of retirees or “the very, very wealthiest people in our state.”
Weaver defended the status quo. “Flat taxes are harder to raise. Illinois needs discipline,” he said. He compared a progressive income tax to “a cable introductory offer. I don’t think it can stick.”
Yet Sims said that was asking a 20th-century tax code to address a 21st-century economy.
McSweeney fell back on a distrust of government, saying, “Do you really trust Illinois politicians to set your tax rates in the future?”
Considering they’re elected to do just that and have been through the state’s history, voters should have an opinion on that — as well as a say in who will be elected going forward.
The debate was conducted Monday, April 15, the deadline date to file 2018 tax returns, as part of the City Club’s regular lunch forums at Maggiano’s Banquets in Chicago.