Lawmakers file bills barring state lawmakers from working as property tax lawyers

Lawmakers file bills barring state lawmakers from working as property tax lawyers

A number of state and local lawmakers in Illinois practice property tax appeals litigation. But a pair of bills recently filed in the General Assembly would end their ability to benefit at the expense of taxpayers.

The property tax appeals process in Illinois could soon see reform, if changes recently introduced in Springfield reach Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk.

Two state lawmakers introduced proposals in the General Assembly that would prohibit Illinois lawmakers involved in property tax litigation from participating in appeals cases brought before any unit of government in Illinois.

House Bill 4435 and Senate Bill 2495 were filed Jan. 31 by state Rep. Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, and state Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove, respectively.

The two proposals follow a statement by Rauner at a Jan. 18 press conference, where he first announced a plan to restrict state lawmakers’ ability to work as property tax appeals attorneys. Rauner also referenced the legislation in his State of the State address Jan. 31.

In Illinois, some of the most powerful politicians at the state and local level are also involved in private law firms that specialize in property tax appeals. This heightens public officials’ capacity for conflicts of interest, and vulnerability to the influence of private entities shopping for property tax reductions.

Too often, lawmakers have been the beneficiaries of this system, enriching themselves at the expense of other taxpayers who are left to make up the shortfall. Some lawmakers’ close professional relationship with the assessor further raises questions of a conflict of interest.

According to a joint investigation released in December 2017 from the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois, House Speaker Michael Madigan’s firm, Madigan & Getzendanner, was the murky tax appeals game’s biggest winner. The report found that Madigan’s firm filed appeals on roughly $8.6 billion worth of assessed value since 2010, making Madigan & Getzendanner the top firm in terms of value appealed, and arguably the biggest beneficiary from the system of erroneous property valuations made by the office of Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios.

One of Chicago’s most powerful aldermen also gained handsomely from Berrios’ assessments, the investigation found. Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, 14th Ward, enjoys co-proprietorship of private law firm Klafter & Burke, which also happens to specialize in property tax appeals. Burke’s firm, like Madigan’s, handled appeals for properties with billions of dollars in assessed value from 2011-2016, according the December report.

Madigan and Burke, it’s worth noting, are close political allies with Berrios.

This system can be a windfall for the politically connected. But an earlier Tribune report found that the system disproportionately harms low-income property owners by frequently over-assessing their property value, which translates into higher property tax bills.

One step lawmakers could take to ease some of this pain would be to pass either HB 4435 or SB 2495. This would take the needed first step toward reform by driving corruption out of a property tax appeals process that has bred inequality and enabled conflicts of interest.

Illinoisans already shoulder some of the highest property taxes in the country. They shouldn’t have to shoulder the additional burden of lawmakers using this system to work against them.

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