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Thursday, April 13, 2017 12:29 am

Our dishonest debates

PHOTO BY ALAN SOLOMON/TNS
I suppose it’s too much to expect that we get an honest debate about the need for more state revenues in the already active gubernatorial race. Candidates will be candidates and voters will be voters, after all.

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s campaign blasted out an email last week telling supporters that newly announced billionaire Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker wants to raise the state income tax to more than 5 percent, which, the campaign claimed, would be “Higher than it was under Pat Quinn.”

Never mind that Rauner himself privately supports raising state taxes to historically high levels. He’s OK with a 4.99 percent income tax rate and a 7 percent corporate tax rate. But he also backs a new tax on sugary beverages and a new sales tax on several services. If all that was implemented, the state government would be taxing residents billions of dollars more than it ever has before.

So, apparently, you can only be for the massive tax hikes that Rauner wants. Otherwise, you’ll be portrayed as being in House Speaker Michael Madigan’s hip pocket.

The Illinois Republican Party obtained audio of Pritzker speaking at a private Democratic event. In one snippet, Pritzker is heard saying: “Let’s remind everybody, the tax used to be 5 percent, and [Rauner] let it lapse down to three-and-three-quarters percent. And that’s what started a lot of the problems that we’ve got in the state. So, if you just put it back that’s $5 billion dollars. That doesn’t get you everything you need, but it’s a good way toward, you know, toward getting real revenue in the state.”

The comment was eerily similar to one made by Speaker Madigan in late 2015. “A good place to begin,” Madigan said back then, “would be the level we were at before the income tax expired. Starting there, you can go in whatever direction you want to go.” Rauner immediately pounced on that comment to claim that Madigan wanted to raise the income tax above 5 percent, even though he never actually said that.

Pritzker’s private comments along with a claim that he’s in league with Madigan’s “plan” were sent to reporters hours before Pritzker’s official campaign kickoff.

“I think that we ought to start with the millionaires and billionaires and make sure that they’re paying taxes first,” Pritzker responded when asked, in apparent reference to a graduated income tax or a surcharge on the wealthy, “We’re not going to talk about raising taxes on middle-class families until we take care of that problem,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

But taxation like that would require a constitutional amendment because the state’s Constitution mandates a flat income tax. And that means it would require a three-fifths majority in both legislative chambers, and the Republicans (along with some Democrats) have historically resisted a graduated tax. So, forget it.

After Pritzker’s press conference, the Republicans released yet another audio snippet of Pritzker admitting the hard truth about a graduated tax: “So let’s just talk about this flat income tax, because we’re not going to be able to turn it into a millionaire’s tax, a fair tax – it’s gonna take us three years.”

The Republicans used that second snippet to claim that Pritzker wasn’t telling the truth to reporters earlier in the day. And their point has merit.

Rauner insists his plan is better because tax hikes are coupled with his reforms. But even his full package of reforms from back in 2015 would’ve only slightly moved the economic and budgetary needles, according to his very own analysis that he sent to legislators that year. His reform demands have since been significantly scaled back. And while some of his reforms are undoubtedly needed (particularly workers’ comp costs), much of the rest is little more than political window dressing (term limits) and have next to nothing to do with spurring growth.

We are in this hole because our leaders refused to be honest, starting with the 2011 “temporary” tax hike, right through the 2014 campaign, then allowing the tax hike to partially expire and then fighting over who would blink first on raising taxes and accepting “reforms.”

And the public prefers the lies. Polls show Illinoisans are convinced somebody else should solve the problem, either millionaires via taxation (which wouldn’t raise enough cash) or the faceless bureaucracy via cuts (except for just about every state program under the sun).

Again, I suppose it’s too much to ask that candidates and the governor are honest about this stuff. But that means this contest could not only turn out to be the most expensive in Illinois history, it could also be the most dishonest.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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