The debate over whether Illinois should change its flat income tax to a structure taxing higher rates for higher earners is expected to be expensive as groups on both sides of the issue prepare for November 2020 election.

Voters will likely see more political ads for and against changing the state’s flat income tax to a structure with higher rates for higher earners. That proposed change to the state constitution will appear on ballots in November 2020. Voters will have the final say at the ballot box.

Supporters have said the progressive income tax proposal will bring the state an additional $3.2 billion in tax revenue. That money would be used to address the state’s structural budget deficits. Opponents have questioned those revenue projections.

The debate is no longer just about tax policy. A reproductive rights group recently jumped into the fray.

Personal PAC previously aligned with Gov. J.B. Pritzker on abortion issues. And the group joined the governor on the progressive income tax. Group President Terry Cosgrove wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that the progressive income tax system will improve the equity of the state’s tax system.

“We support investments in services for prenatal care, healthy maternal outcomes for women of color, access to comprehensive, medically accurate sexuality education, birth control and a broad range of health services, including abortion care,” Cosgrove wrote.

“Personal PAC calls on every pro-choice voter to join us in supporting the fair tax amendment,” he continued. “Under a fair tax system, the state of Illinois will have the resources to fund the broad range of programs and services needed to ensure that every child in Illinois is cared for, regardless of zip code.”

Pritzker also has support Think Big, a group he’s funded that runs ads supporting a progressive income tax.

Another group, Ideas Illinois, is opposed to changing the flat tax to a progressive tax. Chairman Greg Baise said he expects the battle to heat up.

“We’re up against the richest elected politician in the country,” Baise said. “J.B. Pritzker can spend the amount of money he wishes to spend. If we spend one dollar, he’ll spend two.”

Pritzker used more than $170 million from his personal wealth to fund his campaign for governor, far more than the former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s $70 million.

“We hope [we’ll have enough money],” Baise said. “We think that we’ll be competitive and we will make sure the people of Illinois understand what’s at stake in making this change to the state constitution.”

Knodle Limited Farms operator Heather Hampton Knodle said she’ll evaluate the idea.

“If it were to replace all other taxes, it might be something to take seriously,” Knodle said. “But the fact remains we will still have property taxes that will continue to increase. We still have a sales tax, we still have utilities, and excise and telecommunications and special districts.”

If the progressive income tax is approved by voters, she said wealthier residents may move to other states to avoid the higher taxes. Others, such small family farms with assets, can’t do that.

“We’re not able to move those assets,” Knodle said. “That land, we can’t pick it up and move it to a similar climate somewhere else. And the same goes for many other small businesses that have invested in this literal brick and mortar and people and training.”

“In the absence of tax relief on every other front, [I'm] not sure it makes sense,” she said.

Supporters of the tax have said higher tax rates for higher earners is fair. Opponents have said the change will eventually mean higher rates are passed on to taxpayers in lower-income brackets.

Staff Writer

Greg Bishop reports on Illinois government and other statewide issues for The Center Square. Bishop has years of award-winning broadcast experience, and previously hosted “Bishop On Air,” a morning-drive current events talk show.