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Pritzker’s Fair Tax Is a Sweet Deal for Southern Illinois

The region stands to gain more from the plan than anywhere else in the state. And thanks to the Dems’ supermajority, they’ll get it while voting Republican.

Cairo, Illinois, pictured here in 2003   Photo: Jim Prisching/Chicago Tribune

Southern Illinois is the poorest part of our state. It has the lowest per capita income, the highest unemployment, and the fewest millionaires.

According to Gov. JB Pritzker, the counties that make up the land called Little Egypt would reap the greatest benefits from his proposed progressive income tax, which promises a cut for filers earning less than $250,000 a year.

In Alexander County — which includes the onetime river port town Cairo, population 2,000 and falling — 99.8 percent of residents would get a tax cut. In Franklin County, whose economy is based on the declining coal industry, 99.6 would get a tax cut.

So you’d think Southern Illinois’s legislators would be all in on the progressive income tax. After all, it would mean a transfer of wealth to their region from booming Chicago-area counties.

But State Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, who represents most of deep Southern Illinois, is an outspoken opponent of the so-called fair tax.

In 2016, Fowler defeated Gary Forby, one of the region’s last Blue Dog Democrats. In 2018, he won re-election as an opponent of amending the state’s constitution to allow a progressive tax, appearing at a press conference with fellow Republicans to denounce the measure. (Fowler’s opponent favored the tax.) 

In a recent newsletter to constituents, Fowler wrote that “[b]road and unrealistic proposals, such as a shortsighted minimum wage increase, a costly progressive income tax system or Band-Aid fixes for Illinois’ ballooning pension crisis, will have lasting detrimental consequences on the region.”

Not exactly. Currently, Southern Illinois depends more on public spending than any other part of the state. According to ”The Politics of Public Budgeting,” a study by the Paul Simon Institute at Southern Illinois University, state revenue and disbursements make up 19.9 percent of Southern Illinois’s economy. That’s three times higher than in Cook County, and six times higher than in the collar counties. By ​Pritzker’s estimates, a progressive income tax would generate $3.4 billion in revenue, much of which would flow to universities, prisons, and parks in Southern Illinois.

Meanwhile, in Lake County, only 93.4 percent of residents would get a tax break. But state Sen. Terry Link, a Democrat from Gurnee and the chamber’s Assistant Majority Leader, will have the task of whipping votes to place the progressive income tax on next year’s ballot. The resolution’s sponsor, Don Harmon, is from Oak Park, a well-to-do bedroom community that would surely see tax increases for a higher proportion of its residents than Cairo, Harrisburg, or West Frankfort.

So why are so many senators voting against their constituents’ pocketbooks? Because in Illinois, issues of cultural and regional identity are more important than economic issues.

State Rep. Dave Severin, R-Benton, who represents part of Fowler’s district, once summed up his constituents’ interests as “God, guns and coal.” Fowler and Severin were both elected alongside Donald Trump in 2016.

Trump, who was seen as a supporter of God, guns, and coal, helped turn Southern Illinois — once a Democratic stronghold devoted to labor rights and public spending — a deep red. The Republicans promise to protect gun rights. They promise to crack down on environmental regulations detrimental to the coal industry. They promise to oppose abortion, an issue of supreme importance to religious conservatives.

But the Republicans also believe the wealthy pay enough taxes as it is. Democrats believe they don’t pay enough. Now more than ever, political parties are ideologically consistent. There are few remaining liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats – cafeteria candidates who pick and choose items from each party’s agenda.

The good news for Southern Illinois: a progressive income tax amendment will probably make it onto the 2020 ballot, regardless of how southern representatives vote. Democrats hold a supermajority in both houses, enabling them to pass that resolution even over unanimous Republican opposition.

With that amendment on the ballot, Southern Illinoisans will be able to vote in the economic interest of their region while still electing conservative legislators — those in opposition to the cultural and political hegemony of liberal Metro Chicago. It’ll be a rare chance to achieve an end run around modern partisanship – politically, a pretty sweet place to be.

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