The following is an op-ed I wrote and pitched to the Chicago Tribune in advance of the November 3, 2020 general election in Illinois. I’d been phonebanking with ONE Northside Chicago and had had two particularly invigorating discussions with folks I identified with: “independent voters” who wondered why there was so much battling about the upcoming ballot measure to strike the requirement in Illinois that the income tax must be a flat tax, i.e. the same percentage of your income, regardless of how much you make. The Trib’s editorial board was staunchly against the ballot measure so I figured when I pitched it, there was a 10% probability they’d publish it. In the end, they didn’t, but I’m still glad I put pen-to-paper, or actually fingertip-to-keyboard to get these thoughts out of my head and into the world. Thank you to the Op-Ed Project for the boost of confidence and framework via their Write To Change The World workshop in September 2020. Their training was the third one I’d taken on writing with authenticity: the other two were The Story Skills workshop led by Bernadette Jiwa, which I attended in April 2020, and an Own Your Expertise workshop by Write/Speak/Code Chicago I attended towards the end of 2019. Thank you also to the many friends I reached out to while drafting for sharing your perspective and your vote of confidence. Also shout-out to the makers at DraftIn and Basecamp for making the tools that helped me collaborate with ease in this process.
Cut through the noise: the graduated tax amendment is about taking a step towards equity
If you believe all the propaganda, you might think there are two different constitutional amendments on the ballot in Illinois this year: one that would make the state tax system fair, and one that would be an unequivocally damaging tax hike.
But no, it’s just one proposed change and neither hyperbolic framing is true. The proposed amendment would mean in Illinois, your income would be taxed at different rates depending on how much you make. That’s the core issue. It’s the core issue being drowned by a lot of noise.
The prime example of this noise is the finger-pointing at pensions. It goes like this: why should we give Illinois politicians more taxpayer money when they won’t reform public pensions?
We could entertain the diversion. Rather than look at things academically, think about the people. Pensions guarantee the amount you earn in retirement rather than defined contribution plans like 401(k), where you define the amount you save for retirement while still working. Seventy percent of those receiving benefits in Illinois got under $50k/year in 2018 based on data made available by the Better Government Association. These pensions go to retired public employees like teachers and firefighters. $50k/year in retirement isn’t too much, especially for those who taught our kids and responded to our medical emergencies.
So let’s not let this noise distract us. Pensions are not on the ballot.
What is on the ballot is whether Illinois should have an income tax structure that allows different tax rates on the incremental dollar. Based on the brackets that would go into effect (page 36): if you’re part of the 3% of Illinois’ population that makes more than a quarter million dollars a year, is it alright to pay 7.75 cents in taxes for that 250,001st dollar instead of 4.95 cents? Or 7.99 cents in taxes for that 750,001st dollar?
For me, the answer is yes. I grew up in a four-person household making around $40,000 a year. By age 10, I was acutely aware how much every dollar mattered. Fast forward two decades and I now make nearly five-times that household income on my own. That incremental dollar — I don’t feel it. I don’t need to hold onto the same amount of that dollar for myself vs. paying it forward in taxes. My income trajectory is not simply because “I earned it”. Sure, I work hard but I also live in a society that overvalues some professions like mine while undervaluing others like teaching. One way to correct for that over-valuation is paying more in taxes. And yes, to those of you wondering if I have enough skin in the game: I pay property tax too.
My “yes” vote is not singularly enthusiastic. I know the new tax brackets would not give meaningful tax relief to the poorest Illinoisan households. The reduced tax rates of down to 4.75% for the first $10k means $20/year in reduced income tax burden. That’s groceries for a week or two if you are practiced at stretching it but hardly relief for the disproportionate burden of taxes Illinois’ lowest income households pay. To truly move the state towards a tax structure that does not rely on over-taxation of the low-income and middle-income earners at the benefit of the highest earners, we’d need much more graduated brackets with a lowest tier at 0%.
But there’s no way we get to an equitable tax structure without taking this first step: changing the Illinois constitution to legalize graduated income tax rates. Cut through all the noise and what’s the right thing to do? It’s to vote yes.