A taxpayer bill of rights would protect residents and encourage lawmakers to budget responsibly
Illinois needs a taxpayer bill of rights to urge policymakers to budget based on available revenue — or be prepared to subject tax increases to direct voter approval.
The Illinois General Assembly has ushered in the state’s third fiscal year without an operating budget.
Throughout the spring legislative session, which concluded May 31, Illinoisans watched from the sidelines while lawmakers put forth budget proposals that would hike income taxes, expand the sales tax and raise cable and satellite TV taxes – even though voters do not support this path forward.
Illinois taxpayers need a louder voice when it comes to how the state approaches taxation. A taxpayer bill of rights, or TABOR — which would amend Illinois’ constitution so new taxes or tax increases would require direct voter approval — would protect taxpayers from this kind of nickel-and-diming and urge lawmakers to budget responsibly.
Tax hike proposals from spring 2017 show taxpayers need a stronger voice in Springfield
Despite an already crushing tax burden, rampant out-migration, and generally weak economic growth, Illinois Senate Democrats approved a massive $5.4 billion tax hike May 23, while the House declined to vote on any budget bills – meaning a budget never made it to the governor’s desk.
Throughout ultimately unfruitful budget talks, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle at least seemed willing to concede homeowners need protection from soaring property taxes. Indeed, 16.5 percent of Illinois’ properties with mortgages were seriously underwater as of the first quarter of 2017, according to the most recent data from RealtyTrac. And sky-high property taxes worsen Illinois’ slow housing recovery by driving up homeowner expenses and keeping home values low.
However, policymakers couldn’t find consensus on whether the property-tax freeze should be temporary or permanent, and ultimately no freeze was passed.
Changing the budget conversation
Illinois’ approach to budgeting is backward: Politicians decide how much they want to spend, compare that amount with available revenue, and then tax – or borrow, which is merely a form of future taxation – to make up the difference. In Illinois, that spend-first mentality means government spending and revenue needs take precedence over what taxpayers can afford.
Under this approach, lawmakers always end up scrambling to get their hands on more money to fund their promises.
But taxpayers don’t want to shell out more tax dollars to prop up irresponsible state spending, especially not without tangible reforms.
In fact, a recent poll of likely Illinois voters conducted by Fabrizio, Lee & Associates and commissioned by the Illinois Policy Institute revealed 49 percent of respondents who are directly affected by the budget impasse prefer a cuts-only, no-tax-hike budget, while 38 percent support a cuts-plus-taxes plan.
Illinois should adopt a TABOR, a constitutional amendment designed to restore power to the people of Illinois by mandating state and local tax increases or new taxes be contingent upon voter approval via ballot referendum. A TABOR would also restrict how much revenue the government could collect annually based on a formula of increases in population and inflation.
By providing a real-time check against lawmakers’ inclination to habitually raise taxes, a TABOR would remove taxes as a free-for-all revenue source. Instead, it would urge Illinois policymakers to actually budget based on available revenue — or be prepared to subject tax increases to voter approval.
If Illinois had a TABOR, for instance, voters — not politicians — would decide whether and when to remove a property-tax freeze, had it been passed by the General Assembly. And a TABOR would protect voters from other taxes being hiked while property taxes were frozen.
Illinois wouldn’t be the first state to take this taxpayer-friendly approach: Colorado adopted a TABOR in 1992 to defend residents against runaway taxation.
Although not always politically expedient, responsible budgeting is an important part of lawmakers’ jobs. For too long, Illinois policymakers have avoided making tough calls by simply reaching deeper into taxpayers’ pockets. This hasn’t done the state any favors.
Illinois already saddles taxpayers with one of the heaviest tax burdens in the nation, and the state still can’t keep up with its bills or pay down its debts.
A TABOR would create a much-needed buffer against damaging tax hikes. It would give taxpayers say over how much of their money goes to the government, while providing policymakers concrete incentive to spend within the state’s means.
Adopting a TABOR would be smart policy for Illinois, given decades of fiscal mismanagement at the state and local levels and the state’s beleaguered tax base.