They were about 12 minutes into the most recent gubernatorial debate last Wednesday when ABC Seven political reporter Craig Wall asked J.B. Pritzker the tax-rate question.
“Mr. Pritzker,” Wall asked, “don’t you think the voters deserve to know how much you intend to raise taxes and what those rates would be?”
Pritzker responded by explaining why he thinks the state needs a progressive or “fair” tax that sets a higher rate for the rich. But he said he wouldn’t be settling on rates until he had negotiated a deal with state legislators.
In other words, he ducked Wall’s question.
Don’t feel bad, Craig—you’re not alone. Dozens of reporters have unsuccessfully asked Pritzker a variation on your question for the better part of the last year.
In fact, I asked him that question on my radio show several months ago. In general, Pritzker did so much ducking and dodging that I started calling him Sugar Ray, in honor of quick-on-his feet boxer Sugar Ray Leonard.
Well, I don’t blame Pritzker for ducking and dodging on the tax-rate question—but I’ll return to that later.
The larger point is that Rauner and Pritzker represent two diametrically opposing views of how to pay for government.
Rauner’s wedded to the fantasy that you can run government on nothing. Schools, police, road construction—these and all the other things people want from government are supposed to magically pay for themselves.
In 2011, then-governor Pat Quinn and the Illinois General Assembly temporarily raised the state income tax rate to 4.95 percent. In 2015, Rauner let it fall back to 3.75, then resisted any attempt to raise it even as the state debt rose by the billions.
Last year, Ilinois house speaker Michael Madigan rounded up enough votes to override Rainer’s veto and raise the tax back up to 4.95. And for the past few months, Rauner’s been shamelessly waltzing around the state, trying to take credit for programs the tax hike paid for while blasting Madigan for raising taxes.
Now he’s back to pretending we can fund government—and pay our state’s pension obligations—by letting the tax rate fall back to 3.75 percent. As he did in the recent gubernatorial debate.
It’s straight-up Reaganomics—what George H.W. Bush called voodoo economics. Give the rich a cut and hope they’ll create so many tax-creating jobs that the cuts pay for themselves.
You fell for Rauner’s line back in 2014, voters. Shame on you if you fall for it again.
In contrast, Pritzker’s more or less wedded to the reality that someone has to pay for government. And so he’s pushing for a progressive tax with a graduated rate. He’s proposing to hike the rates on the state’s wealthiest residents—like himself and Rauner—so he can cut them for people who make less.
But he won’t reveal the rates no matter how many times he’s asked.
Like I said, I don’t blame Pritzker for ducking the tax-rate question. History is littered with the carcasses of candidates who dared to tell the truth about taxes.
Consider the case of Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate for president in 1984. At his nominating speech at that year’s Democratic convention, Mondale made the mistake of admitting that he would have to raise taxes to lower the enormous budget deficit.
“By the end of my first term, I will reduce the Reagan budget deficit by two-thirds,” Mondale declared. “Let’s tell the truth. It must be done—it must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”
Reagan won in a landslide.
In 1994, Dawn Clark Netsch tried a different tack in her gubernatorial campaign right here in Illinois. She proposed to raise the state income tax while lowering property taxes across the state. That way the state would provide more money for education, and towns and cities wouldn’t be so dependent on the property tax to pay for schools.
Her Republican opponent, then-governor Jim Edgar, hammered Netsch as a tax-and-spend liberal. Guess what? He won in a landslide—just like Reagan.
Eventually, Edgar sheepishly admitted that Netsch might have been right, as he tried to implement a funding plan similar to the one she’d proposed.
Alas, his Republican colleagues in the statehouse blocked it. And it’s been downhill for Illinois, fiscally speaking, just about ever since.
So I don’t blame Pritzker for ducking the tax-rate question. If Pritzker were to come out and state how much he intends to raise tax rates, Rauner would turn it into an attack ad, ominous music playing in the background behind a narrator offering distorted information in a deep, scary voice.
It’s not as though we live in a genuinely bipartisan society where Republicans and Democrats harmoniously work together to craft fair and equitable budgets that actually cover our obligations.
No, our elected officials either figure ways to put off paying the bills so someone else has to deal with them (hello, Mayor Daley) or, like Rauner, they preach the fiction that the obligations will magically pay for themselves.
Walter Mondale was right. Sooner or late you have to pay the bills.
Pritzker is just trying to win without telling you who’ll pay how much. He’ll probably be bobbing and weaving right up until Election Day on November 6.