It’s easy to conclude that Democratic Senate President John Cullerton is living in cloud-cuckoo land after he told WGN Radio several weeks ago that the state’s unfunded pension crisis isn’t really a crisis.
The ratings agencies that downgrade Illinois so regularly that taxpayers could set their clocks to it might disagree, but I digress.
Yes, it looks like Cullerton is divorced from reality in thinking that a $100 billion shortfall – and that’s minimum – is no big deal. But he’s not. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
Cullerton doesn’t think it’s a crisis because he’s counting on “fixing” it through replacing the Illinois flat income tax with a progressive one.
The “temporary” tax increase of January 2011 – 67 percent on individuals and 46 percent on businesses – passed in a lame-duck session without a single Republican vote. It required a healthy dash of Illinois Business As Usual: Four of the outgoing lawmakers who voted “yes” landed high-paying state jobs.
That increase is supposed to start going away at the end of next year. Cullerton, if you remember, assured us after the vote that it would expire as planned:
“A portion of this tax is going to expire in four years. This, again, is a temporary tax,” Cullerton said.
Fast forward to present day. The state’s finances are worse now than they were before the tax increase. More than 20 percent of the current state budget is going to pay pension obligations, and the state’s still sitting on billions of dollars in unpaid bills.
And Cullerton, in his other comments to WGN, confirmed what Illinois taxpayers knew all along – his assurances were a bunch of hooey:
“These pension [reforms] we’ve talked about will save annually anywhere from $750 million to $1.5 billion. So you’re still going to have real huge cuts that we’ll have to make if we don’t raise that income tax higher than what they’re scheduled to go down to.”
Yet another Illinois politician caught lying through his teeth? Hardly.
Plan A never has been making the temporary income-tax increase permanent. The plan is to force a crisis to plead the case for a constitutional amendment for a progressive one.
We’re watching that plan unfold now, and the “public pressure” phase has started in earnest.
Public-sector unions, which understandably are worried about their pensions, are ratcheting up pressure for a new tax. The League of Women Voters, which never met a tax increase it didn’t like, has been holding public forums about how we need what they’re now calling a “fair tax.”
Springfield tax hikers need the help. If it were easy to amend the Illinois Constitution to create a progressive tax, it already would have happened.
It takes a three-fifths vote – 71 in the House and 36 in the Senate – to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. Cullerton’s Democrats hold 40 seats, but House Democrats hold exactly 71 seats.
One of those seats is held by Rep. Jack Franks of Marengo, who has signed onto a resolution by fellow Rep. David McSweeney to oppose a progressive income tax.
Franks, who faces Republican challenger Steven Reick next year, has survived and thrived in McHenry County by voting down every tax and spending bill that comes across. He told the Northwest Herald that he intends to do the same for this proposal.
But even if the amendment doesn’t get on the ballot, there always is that Plan B of making the temporary tax increase permanent after the November election.
And anyone who thinks that hiking taxes in an election year is a political poison pill needs to be reminded of recent Illinois electoral history.
Democrat Pat Quinn and Republican Jim Edgar ran on platforms of raising taxes – Quinn for our latest tax increase, and Edgar to make our previous “temporary” tax increase permanent. Both won.
• Kevin P. Craver is senior reporter for the Northwest Herald. He has won more than 70 state and national journalism awards during his 13 years with the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4618 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.