Franks: Illinois' property-tax system needs a large dose of fairness

Until I learned recently that Benjamin Franklin said “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” I had always assumed that the author of that famous quote was from Illinois. 

While our nation was reeling between 2008 and 2010 from the worst recession in 80 years, many states decided to cut spending and reduce taxes, keeping more in the bank accounts of families and small businesses.

Illinois, on the other hand, raised personal and corporate income-tax rates over the objections of many, including myself, while putting off hard choices about eliminating inefficient programs and reforming our state’s broken public-sector retirement systems. This has resulted in an extremely weak recovery – Illinois has the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate – and led to the tax increase being directed solely toward pension obligations while providers of goods and services go unpaid by the state.

Local governments, regardless of the party affiliation of their leadership, also are guilty of taking more from taxpayers when they can least afford it, compounding the harm caused by the policies enacted in Springfield.

The most recent data available indicate that property-tax rates in Illinois are second only to New Jersey and that, on average between 2005-2009, six of the 40 counties with the highest property taxes in the United States were in Illinois. One of them is McHenry County.

I have been focused on addressing this imbalance. In the previous two House sessions, I advocated for legislation with a simple premise – if the average value of property went down, property taxes could not go up that year. I think that when people have to live with less, the government should, too. This legislation passed the House in 2012, but was killed in the Senate by lobbyists representing local governments and paid for with your taxpayer dollars. In 2013, it met a similar fate in the House.

While I plan to keep fighting to pass this legislation, to provide relief to taxpayers struggling under the weight of ever-increasing taxes, I recently have introduced three bills that attack this problem from different angles: 

The first, House Bill 3654, increases the authority of county assessors to punish those who fraudulently claim exemptions from property-tax liability. Tax fraud negatively impacts all other taxpayers and no resident of Illinois should be footing the bill for tax cheats.

The second bill, House Bill 3678, demands greater transparency on the part of taxing bodies, requiring any local government entity that wants to increase its tax rate to do so at a publicly announced hearing that will be open to residents for comments. If local governments are going to continue to increase property taxes year after year, at the very least they must do so publicly and go on record as being supportive of raising taxes.

The third bill, House Bill 3676, I call the Property Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Presently, the taxpayer has the burden of proving in an appeal that an assessment is too high. This bill shifts the burden of proving why an increase is warranted to the assessors. By guaranteeing the right of taxpayers to basic standards of justice, we can force taxing bodies to issue more responsible assessments.

These bills seek to help fix a different part of the problem with soaring property taxes in Illinois. The costs of revenue lost to fraud are shifted to honest property owners and renters; tax rates are routinely raised to cover the revenue lost to appealed assessments; and assessment appeals that require the homeowner to prove the assessor incorrect are akin to someone being presumed guilty until proved innocent. 

By passing these bills, the General Assembly has an opportunity to grant serious relief to taxpayers, provide a booster shot to economic growth in our state, and ensure that tax increases don’t have to be one of life’s constants, even in Illinois.

• State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, represents Illinois 63rd House District, which includes much of western and northern McHenry County.