After Illinois state lawmakers toiled for years over changing the formula for how the state funds school districts, Republicans said Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposal to hold back millions unless voters approve a progressive income tax puts that in jeopardy.

Pritzker proposed his budget Wednesday. It called for spending $42 billion in state money, but $1.4 billion of that hinges on voters approving his proposed constitutional amendment for a progressive income tax. Illinois has a flat income tax where every taxpayer pays the same flat rate of 4.95 percent, regardless of income. The progressive tax would change that to require higher earners to pay higher rates.

Supporters of the progressive tax have said that is fair. Opponents of the progressive tax have said the flat tax makes it harder for lawmakers to raise taxes and pits one class of people against another.

Illinois House Republicans criticized the governor’s plan to hold back $150 million in evidence-based funding for schools if voters don’t approve his proposed constitutional amendment, which would increase taxes by $3 billion, largely by raising rates for those making more than $250,000 a year.

On Thursday, Pritzker defended his proposal to hold school funding in reserve.

“If there’s no fair tax we’ll only increase it by $200 million, and not $350 [million], which is what I would like to do, which I believe we should put more in,” Pritzker said.

The governor said increasing taxes through the progressive income tax would allow the state to spend more on schools to help ease pressure on property taxes. School districts in Illinois rely on property tax levies for the majority of their funding.

State Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Raymond, said Pritzker was using a bullying tactic that held districts hostage as school officials work to prepare budgets.

“When they’re going through the budgeting process right now, they’re also going through their levy process,” Bourne said. “So with the uncertainty that schools are facing, this also forces upward pressure on property taxes, which is something the governor has said he wants to alleviate, but creating this kind of uncertainty does the opposite.”

State Rep. Steven Reick, R-Woodstock, said interpreted the governor’s call to hold back $150 million of $350 million in additional school funding as a threat.

“It’s a nice funding formula you got here, it’d be a shame if something happened to it,” Reick said. “I cannot believe that the governor would hold the school children, especially in the poorer districts, hostage to an agenda to get a constitutional amendment passed."

Pritzker's predecessor, former Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, was criticized for holding up the state budget, including money for schools, for two years while pushing for reforms. 

Voters will vote on the progressive tax in November. The next state budget starts on July 1. School districts have to have budgets in place before that.

“This is irresponsible,” Reick said.

State Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, said the governor's proposed budget was responsible.

“The governor is constitutionally required to introduce a budget that only has current revenues,” Guzzardi said. “So I think that he’s done that and he said also if we get the revenues we need here are the investments we can make.”

The governor's budget officials said the $350 million annual increases in the evidence-based funding law was a goal or suggestion.

Staff Reporter

Greg Bishop reports on Illinois government and other issues for The Center Square. Bishop has years of award-winning broadcast experience and hosts the WMAY Morning Newsfeed out of Springfield.