Chamber chief: State needs to modify reopening plan

While Gov. J.B. Pritzker's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been commendable, more needs to be done to keep businesses in Illinois from closing due to the economic fallout from the crisis, the head of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce told suburban business leaders Wednesday.

Todd Maisch, speaking at the Mid-Year Economic Summit hosted by the Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce, told a group of about 100 people that the governor needs to be more flexible with the state's 5-stage reopening plan because too many business owners are hurting financially, and as a result, too many people in the state are out of work.

He noted there are two separate crises facing the state: the public health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus and the economic crisis resulting from the lockdown. While Pritzker should be commended for his dealing with the public health issue, Maisch said, the governor needs to do more to help businesses get back to normal operations.

"We understand the focus has been on public health, but how do you look at 1.1 million Illinoisans without a job?" he said. "We've got to be able to do two things at one time."

The hospitality industry, in particular, has been severely affected by the crisis, he said, as they were among the first businesses to close and will likely be the last to reopen.

"I don't know how many hotels - even in the Loop - are going to survive this if they are going to lose an entire convention season in 2021," Maisch said. "McCormick Place is a dark barn and it will be for another year if there's not reconsideration of that plan.

"We advocate looking at other states, learning from what they're doing, and modifying so we can get our economy back up and going," he added.

State Treasurer Michael Frerichs told the group about his office's small business bridge loan, which has been helping many business owners stay afloat during the crisis. The treasurer set aside $250 million in March - when the lockdown first took effect - for low-interest loans to help state businesses.

Frerichs noted the program had been in existence since the 1980s, which helped state officials implement the loans well before the federal government was able to provide relief.

The treasurer's office is primarily focused on helping established businesses stay afloat during the crisis through its low-interest loan programs.

"We know it is easier to ramp up a business that is struggling than a business that has shuttered," he added.

Both Maisch and Frerichs talked about the progressive tax referendum that will be on the Nov. 3 ballot. Maisch said the state chamber is against the change from the current flat tax because the top 20% of taxpayers already pay two-thirds of all taxes. In addition, he noted the current system provides "treatments," such as the earned income tax credit, that favor low- and middle-income earners.

"Even though the rate is flat, you can actually graduate your system if you give some people tax treatments and not give others those treatments," he said.

Frerichs added one argument for the progressive tax is the consideration of taxing retirement income of those who can afford it. He said he knows people who receive 6-figure yearly pensions and do not pay income taxes, but the current system doesn't differentiate between them and retirees who barely get by on their savings or pensions.

"One thing a progressive tax would do is make clear you can have graduated rates when you are taxing retirement income," he said. "And, I think that's something that's worth discussion."

Michael Frerichs
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