Saturday 25th November 2017

Taxpayers should flex their muscle, pick their punches

Berg: Taxpayers should flex their muscle, pick their punches

Sugary drink tax
Shutterstock photo

It wasn’t exactly the Boston Tea Party, but it took everything short of dumping Diet Coke into Lake Michigan for Cook County residents to force the repeal of an unpopular tax on sweetened beverages.

The county’s penny-per-ounce “soda tax” will be no more come Dec. 1. And Illinoisans across the state should take heart.

Even the most powerful machine politicians – yes, including House Speaker Mike Madigan – are not above the wrath of the voting public.

Internal polling for one Cook County commissioner showed more than 90 percent of constituents opposed the soda tax. Even Cook County Commissioner Ed Moody, an appointee and longtime political worker for Madigan, flipped his vote in the face of such extreme numbers.

Ultimately, political support for the repeal became nearly unanimous.

Tax repeals are some of the rarest birds in Illinois’ political kingdom. Gov. Jim Thompson’s repeal of the state’s punitive inheritance tax in 1982 and Chicago City Council’s vote to repeal the city’s feudal “head tax” in 2011 are a couple notable examples.

Years before the soda tax repeal, 2013 marked the death of a particularly unpopular sales tax increase in Cook County, which pushed Chicago’s sales tax to the highest in the nation among major cities. It took the ousting of a board president to kill the increase. But it was only a matter of time before that tax hike came back.

Today, Chicagoans are again stuck paying the highest sales tax of any major city in the country, soda tax or no soda tax.

A similar dynamic has played out at the state level. Former Gov. Pat Quinn signed a temporary income tax hike into law in 2011, which partially sunset at the start of 2015. There was a political cost. Quinn lost the governorship. But billions of dollars in new revenue only further cemented the state’s terrible spending habits, so when the tax was partially rolled back the books looked even worse.

Cut to this summer, when Illinoisans watched lawmakers ram through the largest permanent income tax hike in the state’s history.

Therein lies the lesson for Illinoisans who are rightly indignant about their tax bills.

One can righteously rail against tax increases ad nauseam. It might even have consequences at the ballot box. Indeed, nine of the 15 House Republicans who cast at least one vote for the state income tax hike have already announced they won’t run for re-election in 2018. Illinoisans should never forget that their voices have power.

But if aggrieved taxpayers don’t also demand fixes to underlying spending problems, calls for additional tax hikes will return. And they’ll be stronger than ever.

In Cook County, effective taxpayer advocacy means putting pressure on commissioners to address a practically bankrupt pension system, where the average career worker will receive about $2 million in total benefits over the course of his or her retirement.

Hate the soda tax?

Of course, tell your commissioner. But also push for the county to extend 401(k)-style retirement plans currently offered to state university workers to its own workforce in order to begin an end to the pension crisis.

Property tax bill higher than your mortgage payment?

By all means, shout it from the rooftops. But also call for local government consolidation, limits to the extremely broad scope of government union bargaining power, and reform of the state’s prevailing wage laws, which overinflate the cost of public projects.

Fed up with yet another income tax hike without reform?

Call your state lawmaker. But also demand he or she stand up to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which is still pushing for huge raises for the highest-paid state workers in the nation who also receive platinum-level health insurance at a fraction of the cost.

It’s easy to rejoice in the defeat of an onerous tax.

What’s harder? Pushing for reforms needed to change the political battlefield altogether.

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

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