Russ Stewart's column here helps to clarify the debate over the state's 3 percent income tax. Stewart argues that the only way the GOP could hope to win a majority in the state House is if the hopes of the ridiculously funny bloggers at www.joincross.com come to pass: it is a statewide campaign to kick out Speaker Madigan, just as the '94 federal sweep was helped by the Contract With America. Without a statewide message and movement, there's no way to beat a Democratic map. The only possible message that Stewart thinks could possible fuel a GOP rise in House seats is opposition to a raise in the state's 3% income tax.
That's the heart of the debate. Just about every Member of the General Assembly recognizes our 3% income tax is too low. And that our state spending on education is too low. And that our reliance on local property taxes is too high. Everybody gets that. (Right, GOPers? You can be anonymous in the comments section. But I think that's an 80% consensus as the correct public policy among people who pay attention, privately if not publicly).
But, if the electorate will punish you for doing the right thing, then what's the point?
So the question is: will the electorate rise up against an increase in the state's 3% income tax?
I've long believed that the perception of a voter backlash is far stronger than the reality of a voter backlash.
But let's say that it's true -- that the reason why poor kids are stuck with sub-par schools and teachers is because our electeds believe the voters will vote against anyone who raises the 3% income tax to 5%.
What can we do to lessen the number of people who will respond to an attack mailer (he voted to raise the income tax by 66%!)?
One thing is to make sure more people know that the state income tax is only 3%. You'd be surprised how few intelligent, read-the-paper, vote-in-primaries people in Illinois have no clue that the state income tax is so low. Ask someone today and see for yourself.
If people knew the state's income tax was only 3%, they'd be less likely to oppose raising it to a reasonable level -- especially if they believed the extra money went to education (and not to teacher pensions or 'bureaucracy').
That's something we advocates can do -- we should never, ever, ever refer to the "income tax." That phrase should be abolished from our vocabularies. Instead, we should refer to the "3% income tax." Always.
We should have the discipline of the federal GOP on this one (who never call it the "estate tax" or the "$87 billion for Halliburton appropriation" but instead the "death tax" or the "$87 billion for bullets and body armor appropriation").
Plus the state's tax forms should do a much better job at repeating (ad naseum) that the state income tax is only 3%. Almost every state mailing should have a little fact sheet on it: 3% state income tax; 6% state sales tax; local property tax. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
If we can help to build a consensus through our language that a 5% income tax is a reasonable thing -- if the money goes to education -- then we've opened up the path for our electeds to do the right thing.