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Crowell: Growing Illinois' economy, giving middle class a fair shake

Published: Friday, Feb. 21, 2014 5:04 p.m. CST

As I speak with working families all over the state, I’m hearing an all-too-common refrain.

People who work hard, pay their taxes and play by the rules find it tougher and tougher to get by. They’re upset that while ordinary Illinoisans struggle, big corporations and the very rich aren’t paying their fair share – a view shared by 82 percent of Illinois voters, according to a GBA Strategies poll.

They’re right. Economic data substantiates the fact that in Illinois lower- and middle-income families pay about twice the rate in taxes than what the rich pay. That’s simply not fair.

Many of these families are at the breaking point, and they’ll be asked to shoulder even more if Springfield doesn’t changes its priorities – fast. Middle- and lower-income families will either go without essential services or face higher local taxes – probably both – unless Springfield confronts the upcoming fiscal cliff head-on.

Expiring tax rates will add $2 billion to the current $6 billion backlog of unpaid bills. Critical investments in public education, infrastructure, public safety, health and human services and more – literally all of our most important priorities – will face cuts unlike anything we’ve ever seen without drastic changes.

It shouldn’t be that way, and it won’t if the will of the people is respected. Polls show an overwhelming majority of Illinoisans believe such draconian cuts would have unacceptable consequences for vital programs and services.

A Better Illinois is a large and diverse coalition committed to fundamentally altering the way Springfield does business through long-term, structural reform that creates stable and sustainable revenue. Implementation of a fair tax, with lower rates for lower incomes and higher rates for higher incomes would do just that.

Our reforms represent the opposite of how Springfield governs today – with Band-Aids and budget gimmicks, kicking the can down the road until the next crisis arises.

In addition to stability, an even better reason for a fair tax is its impact on lower- and middle-income families and their bottom lines. Implemented properly, a fair tax represents a tax cut – not an increase, but a cut – for the overwhelming majority of Illinois taxpayers over what they currently pay.

That’s not what you’ll hear from the out-of-state special interest groups spending obscene amounts of money peddling doomsday scenarios. But they’re just manufacturing strawmen and outright lies to protect big corporations and the rich.

Perhaps most insulting about the current smear campaign by out-of-state special interests is that it seeks to silence the voices of Illinois voters – 92 percent of whom believe the tax and budgeting process in Springfield is broken and needs to be fixed, according to GBA.

Fair tax legislation simply puts the question of a fair tax to Illinois voters on the upcoming November ballot. It is we, the people, who will ultimately decide. The big money pouring in from outside Illinois actually seeks to deny us the opportunity to vote on a fair tax for ourselves.

Thirty-four states and the federal government have abandoned the antiquated, anti-growth tax system that still burdens Illinois today. It’s no coincidence neighboring Midwestern states and others with a fair tax are recovering more quickly from the Great Recession, with far lower unemployment and much stronger job creation.

There’s no surer way to stimulate Illinois’ economy and create new jobs than a fair tax that puts more money in the hands of lower and middle-income taxpayers who will spend it in their local communities. That’s a recipe for short-term stimulus and long-term economic growth.

It’s long past time to change our antiquated and unfair tax code, in favor of a fair tax with lower rates for lower incomes and higher rates for higher incomes. Let’s put an end to the constant budgeting-by-crisis in Springfield, and at the same time give the middle class a fair shake.

• Kristen Crowell is the executive director for A Better Illinois, a statewide coalition of civic and community organizations, small business, labor and faith leaders, educators, service providers, and tens of thousands of ordinary taxpayers seeking to modernize Illinois tax structure to create greater fairness and long-term economic growth.

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