SPRINGFIELD – An effort to let Illinois voters consider a proposed overhaul of the state’s income tax system died Tuesday in the General Assembly, but there’s still a strong possibility the November ballot could include an unprecedented four constitutional amendments.
The Senate adjourned without taking a vote on Sen. Don Harmon’s progressive income tax plan on the final day lawmakers could take action ahead of a May 4 deadline to get constitutional amendments on the general election ballot.
Harmon said he had support in the Senate for a graduated income tax, which would require wealthier residents to pay higher rate. But majority Democrats wouldn’t risk an election-year tax vote until they had assurances of similar House endorsement, a prospect that fell short.
“It’s a big decision and some folks still had questions they couldn’t quite answer to their own satisfaction,” said Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat. “With a little more time and education we’re going to be able to convince a supermajority in both chambers.”
A Republican measure to limit statewide executives such as the governor to two terms met a similar fate. Shot down in a Senate subcommittee, it served its purpose by allowing the GOP to campaign against Democrats, including Gov. Pat Quinn, for opposing term limits.
Four other proposed amendments could meet voters at the polls on Nov. 4. That would be unprecedented in a state where voters have been asked about amending the 44-year-old constitution only 21 times, approving 11 of them, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.
The General Assembly approved two amendment questions – one to strengthen crime victims’ rights and one designed to stamp out voter suppression.
Bruce Rauner, the Republican candidate for governor, announced that a group he organized to limit legislators to eight years in office, change the size of the General Assembly and limit lawmakers’ ability to override a gubernatorial veto will deliver on Wednesday enough citizen signatures to get it on the ballot. And a group called Yes for Independent Maps says it has enough signatures to let voters decide whether to set up a non-political, independent commission to draw legislative district lines, taking the task out of lawmakers’ hands.
Charles Wheeler III, director of the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said the authors of the Illinois Constitution limited the ability to change the document. They were fearful of a wide-open process like California’s, where voters can put most anything on the ballot with enough support, he said.
The ballot will only be the second to carry a citizen-initiated question. The other was in 1980, when then-political-activist Quinn persuaded voters angered by a pay raise for lawmakers to cut back the size of the Illinois House.
The tax plan would replace Illinois’ flat tax of 5 percent on individuals, which was increased from 2 percent five years ago on what lawmakers said would be a temporary basis. But Quinn now says it needs to be permanent to avoid drastic service cuts. Harmon’s plan would increase the rate of taxation for wealthier residents.
Approving a ballot initiative takes 36 votes in the Senate and 71 in the House. Democrats have 71 seats in the House, but not all were on board, and Republicans were offering no help.
Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat, said progressive tax supporters touted the idea as a reduction in taxes – but that’s if Quinn gets his way and the temporary tax is extended.
“The fact is, the temporary tax is set to expire and this is a major tax increase on the middle class,” Franks said. “We do not have our fiscal house in order and if we throw more money at the problem, in a few years they’re going to say, ‘We need more money.’”
Chicago Democratic Rep. Christian Mitchell, who sponsored the House version of the Harmon tax amendment, said, “We got further than anyone expected in a very short time. I’m in it for the long haul.”
While the Senate waited on a tax vote into the early evening, a Senate subcommittee dashed GOP hopes for executive term limits. Minority Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont sought approval for a ballot question limiting statewide officers, such as the governor or secretary of state, to two terms. Two of the three members of the panel voted against it.
Radogno complained that Democrats were trying to save room for their graduated tax plan. The constitution allows only three articles to be amended at one time, and the voters’ and victims’ rights initiatives have taken two spaces.
“We are struggling mightily under the leadership we’ve had here,” Radogno said after the hearing. “ ... It’s not about an individual. It’s about going forward, making sure we have turnovers of ideas.”
Despite the defeat, merely proposing it put Quinn on the defensive. The governor, who as treasurer and a candidate for secretary of state proposed term limits in 1994, had been noncommittal on the issue in recent months. However, after he was challenged by Rauner to take “the people’s side on the issue,” he said he backed the idea and would not seek a third full term in 2018.