As politicians tend to do after being in office for a year, Democrat Gov. J.B. Pritzker went for a victory lap recently, holding interviews with media outlets about accomplishments and endeavors since he was sworn in Jan. 14, 2019.
Higher minimum wage!
Legalized sports betting!
A $45 billion state construction plan and consolidated downstate police and fire pension funds!
A bipartisan-backed state budget, with GOP-supported business incentives as the cherry on top!
Did someone say legalized cannabis?
Getting a constitutional amendment on the ballot to allow a progressive income tax!
The Democrat is entering his sophomore year with an even bigger prize in mind: Property tax relief.
You’ve got to appreciate the irony of a property tax reduction being pushed by someone who had toilets removed from his Chicago mansion to make it be declared “uninhabitable,” saving $331,000 in property taxes. When a billionaire is taking those steps, you know the taxes must be bad.
Data-wise, Illinois has the second-highest property taxes in the U.S. and it’s a huge factor in our state’s population losses. It’s just too expensive to live and work here.
We can credit a mix of factors going back decades for creating this, starting with massive government pensions and worker health care costs. Workers’ compensation is another area that adds up.
But what really drives this trend is the utter number of taxing bodies. Illinois has about 7,000 entities at all levels, from cities and school districts to fire protection authorities and mosquito abatement districts. Each one taxes and taxes and taxes.
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Governors, including predecessor Gov. Bruce Rauner, have taken aim at this dysfunction for years. Pritzker went the task force route, creating an 88-member panel this summer. He wanted a list of recommendations by the end of the year, but they missed the deadline and instead a 36-page draft was produced.
In terms of recommendations, there’s not much to write home about. The document offers some broad observations, but is light on data and possible savings.
One area that has gotten attention is a suggestion to expand the sales tax base to additional services and to use the revenue for K-12 education, creating a back-fill for lost money from property taxes.
There are a few concerns here.
First, property taxes are put into place by local government entities, not state lawmakers.
Secondly, school funding is already an incredibly contentious topic. And any hint of consolidating school districts amounts to a third rail. The Chicago suburbs have been dealing with the issue for years.
Third, schools are often the No. 1 item on a tax bill and there are 850 districts statewide.
Added up, to start with school funding on this topic seems completely upside down. Pritzker immediately rejected the sales tax expansion idea.
Some GOP House members also last week said Democrats didn't take up their suggestions of cutting taxes. That’s a bad sign.
This report fails to address fundamental problems in the state's taxing structure. Long-term fiscal planning has always been a struggle for our elected officials.
For Pritzker, there's a lot riding on this issue, especially as attention shifts to the income tax amendment, which will be put to voters on the November ballot.
With property taxes, he needs to be careful not to have this task force be another blue-ribbon panel or ceremonial group with empty suggestions.
Lawmakers return to Springfield Jan. 28.