(The Center Square) – The ballot initiative to remove Illinois’ flat income tax protection from its Constitution failed on Tuesday, a result that experts said was due to a combination of factors.
With tens of millions of dollars spent on messaging and an initial promise of a tax cut for the majority of Illinois taxpayers what was it that spooked millions of voters away from supporting the measure?
The argument over whether Illinois should change its flat income tax to one that allows lawmakers to tax incomes at different rates saw more than $100 million in combined campaign spending. Illinois lawmakers had even enacted legislation that, should the measure have succeeded in getting either 50% of the total vote or 60% of those who voted on it, would have lowered the income tax rate on any taxpayer making less than $100,000.
Despite supporters’ best efforts, the initiative garnered less than 45% of the vote.
While there’s no clear reason why voters soundly rejected the initiative, Nick Kachiroubas, a professor with DePaul’s School of Public Service, said the logistics of passing a ballot measure are inherently difficult.
“To get a referendum measure passed in general at any level is a difficult feat,” he said. “This, in particular, was a very confusing and belief-ridden question about what people’s ideals were.”
Even operating off the assumption that supporters of Democrat Gov. J.B. Pritzker would support his signature goal, Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said voters appeared to take heed of messaging about how even the introductory rates would affect businesses already reeling from forced closures due to the pandemic.
“[Supporters] weren’t ready for a simple message of ‘it’s not a cut for everybody. This is the wrong time for a tax on small businesses and farmers,’ which I think was the dominant message we got from the ‘anti’ side,” he said.
Business groups, namely the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business’ Illinois Chapter blanketed the state with messaging that the change meant kicking small businesses when they were down. Moreso than campaigning about a potential retirement tax, Gaines insisted this message held the most weight in voters’ minds.
Dr. Kent Redfield, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield’s Department of Political Science, echoed the sentiments of all three professors in that Illinoisans simply do not trust Springfield with more power.
“There were Democrats who make less than $250,000 a year who would have benefited from a graduated income tax voting against their narrow self-interest to send a message that they were tired of the corruption,” he said, adding that months of federal searches and indictments of several lawmakers didn’t help to instill confidence.
Kachiroubas was surprised about the lack of understanding that Illinois’ finances are in shambles and the funds to plug billions of dollars in budget gaps would more likely be taken from lower and middle-class taxpayers.
“I don’t really think that voters understood what the consequence of not supporting this will be in the tense of ‘that money’s got to come from somewhere,’” he said, adding that he didn’t see a Pritzker administration first implementing cuts.
Multiple Democrats, including Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, warned about tax hikes should the initiative fail on Election Day.
When asked, Kachiroubas said he was unsure if Pritzker would mount another effort to pass a progressive tax in Illinois. Kachiroubas said it’s too early to tell if it would be politically feasible.