Pritzker floats idea for revamped gas tax, refutes Blagojevich ties

Charging gas taxes based on how many miles people drive instead of how much fuel they burn could pump up revenues to help fix Illinois' roads and bridges, Democratic candidate for governor J.B. Pritzker told the Daily Herald editorial board.

Called a vehicle miles traveled or VMT tax, it's an idea worth exploring, the billionaire Hyatt hotel heir said in a Thursday interview where he also pushed for a graduated income tax, but gave few specifics.

"We have to invest in infrastructure - it's been too many years since we had a capital bill," said the 52-year old Chicagoan, one of six candidates in the March 20 Democratic primary.

His plan would focus "on rebuilding roads, bridges and waterways and in my view we need statewide broadband internet access," Pritzker said.

But with more fuel-efficient vehicles, traditional gas tax income is shrinking, Pritzker noted.

"In some states (such as Oregon) they have done tests recently for a VMT tax because we have more and more electric cars on the road, more and more hybrids, and because gas mileage is rising. It's only fair if you're on a road and traveling on that road that you should pay your fair share," he said.

A VMT tax "is something we should look at ... we have to careful how it gets implemented and that's why it should only be a test at this point."

Pritzker, founder of the venture capital firm Pritzker Group, wants a constitutional amendment switching Illinois to a graduated income tax. Reaching that goal could take two years and in the interim, he suggested using a system similar to Massachusetts, where exemptions to the state's flat tax are offered for low- and middle-income residents.

"Then you could raise the overall rate so people (who are earning) beyond that and can afford to pay - pay more. It's not a permanent method," he added.

Pritzker has faced attacks from Republicans and primary opponents who say he's tied to Democratic heavyweights Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a property tax appeals lawyer, and Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios. The assessment system is rigged, critics say, to enrich attorneys and political insiders and benefit the wealthy with low property taxes.

"I think it's extraordinarily important to fix the very flawed property tax system in state and Cook County," Pritzker said. He did not name Madigan but said, "I think we need to make sure there's no conflict of interest for any votes that people take in the legislature and people who work in a certain industry probably ought not be able to regulate themselves with votes they take in the legislature."

A Madigan spokesman said no improprieties involving the speaker's law firm were found in multiple media investigations.

Pritzker's been accused of buying an expensive home next to his Chicago mansion and letting it fall into disrepair to get a $230,000 a year property tax break.

Asked for his side, Pritzker said "like 54,000 other people in Cook County every single year, I sought to have my property reassessed and we did. Prior to that ... we bought the (other) property and had been in the process of renovating it. We halted those renovations at some point because we were busy and because we weren't sure exactly what direction to go with the home and that was what happened when got it reassessed."

A campaign ad released this week by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner contains an edited FBI recording of Pritzker talking to convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who speaks of making deals with Madigan on legislation in exchange for appointing the speaker's daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan to the U.S. Senate. It includes a segment where Blagojevich discusses naming Pritzker as Illinois attorney general.

Rauner "is looking for anything that distracts from his own failures regarding the Quincy veterans home," Pritzker responded, referring to a fatal outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at the facility.

Regarding his interactions with Blagojevich, Pritzker said "being involved as I am nationally with governors and elected leaders, I had some interactions but most of it was on early childhood education."

Pritzker is running against Democrats state Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston, Madison County Superintendent of Schools Bob Daiber, Chicago activist Tio Hardiman, developer Chris Kennedy of Kenilworth and physician Robert Marshall of Burr Ridge.

Introducing candidates for governor

Not in charge? Rauner's foes pounce on his remark

Biss: Pension systems are suffocating the state

Divide Illinois into three or four states

Kennedy criticizes Pritzker tax breaks, says Rauner sabotaged state government

  Democratic candidate for governor J.B. Pritzker discusses his campaign with the Daily Herald editorial board. Mark Welsh/
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