Illinois lawmakers broke a resolution to get serious about the state's property tax problem before the new year even started.
The 88-member Property Tax Relief Task Force created in August 2019 held dozens of meetings and called in some of the state's top experts on the subject, but failed to deliver a final report by Dec. 31 as required.
Instead of delivering solid recommendations that the General Assembly could use to lower property taxes statewide, the task force came up with an unpublished draft report that nearly skirts the pension issue entirely. Pension costs are one of the main drivers of property taxes and the task force included a subcommittee dedicated to that issue.
The pensions subcommittee, led by state Rep. Kathleen Willis and state Sen. Robert Martwick, offered two recommendations. One was to consolidate 649 public safety pension funds, which doesn't really count because lawmakers had already passed legislation to do just that. The other was to provide greater transparency about the true costs of employer contributions In other words, this subcommittee, which met once, did nothing to address one of the state's most pressing problems: Pensions.
At the very least, the subcommittee could have put forth some recommendations to close loopholes and end some of the abuses of the state's five pension systems. Things like banning pension spiking and double-dipping might not result in substantial savings for property owners, but would at least show the members of the subcommittee had thought a bit about the problem and earnestly tried to address it.
Some of the other subcommittees actually tried. Three subcommittees advocated for public school consolidation. Public schools account for the largest portion of property tax bills in Illinois.
"One area of especially great opportunity for consolidation is school districts," the draft report said. "The Government Consolidation Subcommittee, the School Funding Subcommittee, and the Social and Economic Disparities Subcommittee each recommend the consolidation of school districts into unit school districts, in which both primary and high schools are operated under the same district control."
The subcommittees suggested giving school districts a decade to merge feeder districts with high school districts to save on administrative costs and reduce overhead. While this certainly wouldn't be easy, it could help to reduce property taxes and should be pursued.
The School Funding Subcommittee, led by state Reps. Fred Crespo and Stephanie Kifowit, also came up with some recommendations that deserve further discussion. That subcommittee called for closing a loophole that allows school districts to "engage in continual bonding after a bond issue has expired" without approval from taxpayers. It also sought to require districts with significant cash reserves to either identify a purpose for the money or give it back to taxpayers.
The task's force failure to deliver its required report should serve as a reminder to taxpayers and voters that state lawmakers simply aren't up to the task on this.
To see any movement on property taxes, voters must exert pressure on each of the more than 6,900 units of government in Illinois.