Executive Director Reports

Tax fairness is in our hands

Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

Fair tax vote culminates years of groundwork

To fully understand the critical importance of the Fair Tax fight we’re in right now, it’s necessary to recall some recent history. A decade ago, AFSCME joined with other Illinois labor unions and advocacy groups to form the Responsible Budget Coalition. We aimed to restructure the Illinois tax system, making it fairer for working people while stabilizing the state’s finances.

For years we’d seen state government grapple with employee layoffs, program cutbacks, and facility closures. Illinois ranked near the bottom in the nation in state funding for K-12 education. Aid to local governments was cut, while state universities were forced to raise tuition.

Clearly Illinois had a structural deficit, meaning that revenues weren’t sufficient to sustain the spending required to meet the needs of Illinois residents. But the Constitution required raising taxes on everyone at the same rate—not just those who could afford it. So all too often, the state dealt with budget shortfalls by shorting its payments to employee pension funds.

Something had to be done, and the solution seemed obvious. Illinois is one of only a handful of states in which the wealthy don’t pay their fair share. The federal government and 35 states have graduated tax systems with higher rates for higher incomes and lower rates for lower and moderate incomes. But the Illinois Constitution actually bars such a fair tax structure. It’s time for a change.

Why should a household making the state average income—around $65,000 a year—pay taxes like a millionaire?

Looking at our neighbors showed that Illinois was way out of step. Wisconsin and Minnesota have five different tax rates, or brackets, based on income. Kentucky has six brackets, Missouri nine, Iowa 10.

In 2013 our efforts became A Better Illinois, a grassroots movement to convince legislators to put the Fair Tax amendment on the 2014 ballot. Instead, that election gave us a governor whose hostage-taking tactics only deepened the budget crisis: Billionaire Bruce Rauner refused to sign a state spending plan unless the General Assembly complied with his demands to strip public employees of our right to collective bargaining.

Rauner tried desperately to drive down the wages of state employees, eliminate public employee pensions, privatize public services and education and eliminate unions. He had the backing of a crowd of super-rich honchos—most notably billionaire Ken Griffin—and the anti-worker Illinois Policy Institute that they funded.

It took an unrelenting four-year battle led by our union to fight off Bruce Rauner’s assaults. In 2018 we were successful in knocking him out for good, and after JB Pritzker took office we were able to restore the wages Rauner had stolen and secure a new state contract with expanded benefits and fair pay increases.

Now we have the chance to win tax fairness for all working people with the Fair Tax constitutional amendment. But guess what? The same forces that attacked AFSCME members and our union, like the Illinois Policy Institute and Ken Griffin, are now attacking the Fair Tax amendment. They don’t want to fund public services, jobs and pensions, they want to eliminate them. And they definitely don’t want to see the super-rich pay their fair share in taxes.

These opposition forces don’t have good arguments to win voters to their side, so they’re dead-set on confusing voters about what fair tax reform will do. It’s up to every one of us to make sure they don’t get away with it.

Here’s what the Fair Tax amendment will do:

And here’s what it won’t do, no matter what the opposition’s misleading scare tactics might say:

A basic question in the labor movement has always been, “Which side are you on?” The sides on the Fair Tax amendment are clear. The super-rich crowd say “NO” to fairness. Working people say YES to tax fairness, funding fairness and making our state better, too.