Link in the chain of Illinois power, corruption, taxes

Link in the chain of Illinois power, corruption, taxes

With the "fair tax" campaign, lawmakers aim to sell voters a shovel to entrench the status quo by advertising it as a weapon with which to fight against it.

On Aug. 13, Illinois saw the indictment hammer fall on a powerful lawmaker for a fourth time since federal investigators began raiding government offices last year.

Prosecutors charged state Sen. Terry Link, D-Indian Creek, with a felony count of tax evasion. Link, who has held his senate seat since 1997, is not the most high-profile Illinois political leader implicated in the escalating federal probe – that title belongs to House Speaker Mike Madigan – but his case stands out for its layers of irony.

For instance, Link didn’t resign his seat on the Legislative Ethics Commission until after his indictment became public – meaning he’d spent months serving on a panel in charge of ethics investigations while cooperating with federal agents because he was the subject of such an investigation.

Despite allegedly evading his own income taxes, Link voted in favor of sending Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s “fair tax” amendment to voters’ November ballots. Their proposal would not just raise income taxes on Illinoisans, but on over 100,000 of the state’s small businesses that create most of the state’s jobs and have been battered by a pandemic-induced recession. Pritzker, too, is under federal investigation after admitting he dodged his own property taxes.

The absurdities were punctuated by the feds’ timing, indicting Link mere hours after a group of his fellow Democrats assembled to push the urgency of ethics reform as a priority during veto session in November. Republicans had called on Pritzker to order a special session to take up ethics legislation immediately after the Madigan revelations, to the governor’s great disinterest.

Elsewhere, all this might be mistaken for a series of cheap twists in a hacky political tragicomedy. But the hypocrisies on display in the Link case reveal plenty about how corruption thrives in Illinois and some basic insights in understanding how to contain it.

A case in point is the ethics commission on which Link until recently served. Lawmakers appoint other lawmakers to sit on it.

If you were to guess that Illinois politicians might not be the group most eager to hold Illinois politicians accountable for wrongdoing, you’d guess correctly. In February, former Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter testified the commission had in multiple instances suppressed her attempts to bring evidence of lawmaker misconduct to light.

“When I did find wrongdoing and sought to publish it, state legislators charged with serving on the Legislative Ethics Commission blocked me,” Porter said. Link served on the commission at the time.

In Illinois, the state’s top legislative watchdog is forced to first seek permission to open investigations from the same group of people who are supposed to be subject to them. Absent true independence, the legislative inspector general’s existence is meaningless.

The resulting lack of oversight has helped encourage decades of unethical practices in the General Assembly, earning Illinois the ranking of second-most corrupt state in the nation and House Speaker Mike Madigan a concentration of power unrivaled in the U.S. The most severe public policy consequence is over $240 billion in pension debt, courtesy of decades of unkeepable promises made to public-sector unions in exchange for their political loyalty and cash.

Which brings us back to the “fair tax.” Massive pension liabilities above all else have bred an unhealthy dependence on tax increases. While benignly marketed as a tax increase “on the rich,” there is in fact nothing in the amendment protecting Illinoisans lower on the socio-economic scale. In fact, starting rates would relieve low-income Illinoisans of just $6 for a $1,800 state and local tax burden – the third-highest on that income group in the U.S. The debts incurred by the state, coupled with the tax plan’s inadequate revenue projections, would all but necessitate tax hikes creeping into lower brackets, as happened when Connecticut swapped its flat income tax system for a progressive one under economic stress.

With the progressive tax campaign, lawmakers aim to sell voters a shovel to entrench the status quo by advertising it as a weapon with which to fight against it. Already, four of its supporters in the legislature have received federal indictments; while its most noteworthy champion, speaker Madigan, is at the center of a high-profile bribery scandal.

The optics have forced Pritzker to beg Illinoisans not to associate his tax plan with Madigan, but no bill reaches the House floor without Madigan’s distinct blessing. Far more than being associated, Madigan and Pritzker are the tax plan’s proud parents.

A progressive tax system would give more power over income tax rates to the very state legislature Madigan controls, and under whose watch corruption festers. Forcing needed reforms on an unwilling state government instead requires denying it the option to endlessly subsidize poor policymaking.

Chicago Magazine wrote last year of Terry Link, then-assistant majority leader, that he’d “have the task of whipping votes to place the progressive income tax on next year’s ballot.”

He succeeded. But the next hurdle will be much harder to clear than a legislative supermajority passing a politicized ballot referendum on a party-line vote.

And that’s asking voters to trust their state government with more taxing power by approving a referendum championed by a governor under investigation for tax fraud, greenlit by a House speaker facing a bribery lawsuit and steered to voters’ ballots by a senator indicted for refusing to pay his own taxes.

In a state whose residents have already been asked to shoulder endless tax hikes and to hold their noses through decades of corruption scandals, it shouldn’t be surprising if voters decide their trust is simply too much to ask for.

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