Illinois voters reject progressive income tax system

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Illinois voters defeated a measure that would have allowed the state to raise taxes on its wealthiest residents, striking down a pillar of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s plan for shoring up the state’s finances and preventing its debt from being cut to junk.

The defeat of the constitutional amendment that would have scrapped the state’s flat income tax by a vote of 55% against sent the prices of Illinois’s bonds tumbling, with those due in 2034 down about 7%. If approved, the state would have been able to proceed with enacted legislation to apply higher rates to incomes over $250,000, raising levies on the highest earners.

A sign posted on a Chicago, Illinois, storefront on Tuesday. Voters in Illinois rejected a change to the state income tax system.

The loss adds a new challenge to the Democratic governor’s effort to steady the finances of Illinois, whose rising pension-fund costs and chronic budget shortfalls left it with the lowest bond rating among U.S. states even before the pandemic struck. Failure of the measure won’t automatically trigger a downgrade to junk and ratings companies have said they’ll be watching for the state’s backup plan.

“The options for Illinois without the fair tax are not good,” Pritzker said during a press conference on Tuesday before polls closed. He added that without the additional revenue from the graduated income tax, the state needs to look at budget cuts potentially for public safety, education and health services and rely on its “regressive” tax system for additional revenue.

The business closures since March have added to the fiscal challenges and all three major rating companies have a negative outlook on the state, signaling that it could be the first state stripped of its investment grade rank. Such a step would likely add to its financial problems by saddling the government with higher interest bills and preventing many mutual funds from owning its debt.

“In this election, Illinois voters sent a resounding message that with an $8 billion deficit and two massive tax hikes in the last ten years, we cannot trust Springfield Politicians with another tax hike,” the Coalition to Stop the Proposed Tax Hike Amendment, said in an emailed statement late Tuesday.

The amendment would have ended a requirement that all incomes are taxed at the same rate and allowed the enactment of already passed legislation to increase levies on incomes of more than $250,000 a year. That would have brought in $1.2 billion for fiscal 2021, which began July 1, and $3.1 billion for a full year, according to state estimates.

“Now lawmakers must address a multi-billion dollar budget gap without the ability to ask the wealthy to pay their fair share,” Quentin Fulks, chairman of the Vote Yes For Fairness campaign, said in an emailed statement on Wednesday. “Fair Tax opponents must answer for whatever comes next.”

Bloomberg News
Illinois Income taxes State of Illinois J. B. Pritzker