Berg: Will Pritzker buy graduated tax with gas tax pork?

By Austin Berg

Illinoisans already pay some of the highest taxes in the country at the pump. But a political problem for Gov. J.B. Pritzker could mean they'll pay even more.

How? Pritzker's tax plan doesn't have enough support to pass the General Assembly. But some gifts, wrapped in a capital spending bill, could change that.

Despite Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate, Pritzker has thus far failed to push through one of his key campaign promises: a graduated, or progressive, income tax hike.

Pritzker needs lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment eliminating the state's flat income tax protection, which would then head to voters on the 2020 ballot.

Democratic state Rep. Jerry Costello II of Smithton is already on the record opposing the progressive income tax, and Republicans pledged opposition in unison. That means Pritzker can only afford to lose two more Democratic votes.

But new polling shows why more Democratic House members are balking at the governor's plan.

In at least six House districts held by Democrats - ranging from the collar counties, to central Illinois, to the Metro East region - likely voters oppose Pritzker's plan for the state to change to a graduated income tax system, according to polling conducted by Fabrizio, Lee & Associates, on behalf of Illinois Policy.

More TV ads featuring the governor are unlikely to change that. In fact, respondents who said they were aware of Pritzker's plan were more likely to oppose a constitutional amendment allowing for a graduated income tax. It doesn't help that the same polling showed Pritzker is already disliked in almost all of those districts.

The new governor needs to offer some extraordinary political favors if he wants lawmakers to take votes against their constituents.

Enter a capital bill: the king of pork projects.

In 2009, the $31 billion "Illinois Jobs Now!" capital plan was filled with all kinds of goodies. Pritzker could do the same with a capital spending plan of his own.

Gambling expansion, tax hikes on beer and liquor, and a vehicle registration fee hike, among other sources, funded the 2009 plan. But the chatter around Pritzker's capital bill has been all about a potential gas tax hike. Outgoing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel late last year called on the state to at least double its gas tax. One bill in the Illinois Senate would do just that, making Illinois' gas tax burden the second-highest in the nation.

Illinois needs infrastructure improvements. But a capital bill crafted to secure political loyalty means too many wasted dollars. And while bringing home the bacon can be valuable to vulnerable state lawmakers, Pritzker might be underestimating the pain of hiking the gas tax.

A poll released in March from the AAA motor club asked Illinoisans if they would pay more taxes or fees to improve the transportation system, and 74 percent said no. The same share of Illinoisans said existing transportation funding is not being spent appropriately.

Maybe Illinois should pay for services already rendered - the state has more than $8 billion in unpaid bills - before pouring more cement.

Luring lawmakers to vote for one tax hike with the spoils of another is Illinois politics at its worst. Pritzker should pave a new path toward balancing the budget.

Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network. Austin can be reached at

Illinois News Network

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