If you didn't think Democrats in Springfield were serious before about adopting a progressive tax system, they proved this week they'll do almost anything to help Gov. J.B. Pritzker pass his signature campaign promise.

Even if that means reversing themselves on years of bad policy positions.

Senate President John Cullerton upped the ante Tuesday when he introduced a measure that would eliminate the state's crippling estate tax, otherwise known as a death tax.

Illinois is one of a handful of states that taxes larger inheritances after a person dies. The tax applies to estates valued at $4 million or more. It is especially harmful to downstate family farmers, but also impacts retirees or near retirees who — over time — have been able to build their small businesses, 401(k)s or other retirement funds.

When the matriarch or patriarch of a family farm with as few as 500 acres dies, the family could be forced to sell off much of its land just to pay the estate tax. For retirees, what's the incentive to stay in Illinois if as much as 16 percent (the highest Illinois tax rate) of their wealth will be confiscated by state government and not passed on to their children upon death?

Conservatives have been trying to get rid of Illinois' estate tax for years, but the Democrat-controlled General Assembly resisted — until Tuesday, when Cullerton's proposal was introduced.

Of course, there's a catch.

The estate tax goes away only if voters approve a constitutional amendment in November 2020 to allow for a progressive income tax rate in which higher wage earners are charged higher rates. The Senate's plan calls for a top rate of 7.99 percent on individuals who earn $750,000 or more and couples who earn $1 million. That would be up from the existing flat tax of 4.95 percent.

To get the amendment on the 2020 ballot, a supermajority of lawmakers in both the House and the Senate must approve measures this session. It's largely been assumed that the Senate has enough votes to pass it. But the outlook in the House is murkier.

Is Cullerton's proposal meant to persuade some downstate Democrats who might be waffling on the progressive tax to jump on board?

Another sweetener filed this week came from state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill. Manar's measure would freeze school property taxes in years when the state meets its education funding responsibilities, which by itself is a tough ask.

But Illinoisans pay the second-highest property taxes in the country. Property tax relief would be welcome news to lawmakers because it would be welcome news to their constituents.

Like Cullerton's proposal, Manar's is tied to final approval of the progressive tax structure. Another carrot for another bought vote?

Of course, who can trust state legislators to meet their responsibilities or their promises, such as fully funding education.

When lawmakers passed a temporary income tax increase in 2011, the new revenue was supposed to go to pay down the state's massively underfunded pension systems, estimated at the time to be just under $100 billion. The pension deficit has since grown to more than $134 billion.

And the permanent income tax hike approved in 2017 was supposed to right the state's fiscal ship. Instead, Illinois faces a fiscal deficit of more than $1.2 billion this year and still maintains a current backlog of bills of nearly $8 billion.

Pritzker also is proposing another pension holiday to balance next year's budget while he waits to see what happens with his progressive tax plan, so the unfunded liability will grow.

The promise of a property tax freeze sounds enticing, but how can voters trust it? And eliminating the death tax is good policy on its own. It shouldn't be used as a sweetener to entice support for other tax hikes.

Given lawmakers' track record and history of broken promises, taxpayers shouldn't take the bait.

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Dan McCaleb is news director of Illinois News Network, a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a non-profit media company dedicated to the principles of transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility. His columns include his own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinion or editorial position of The Southern. Contact Dan at dmccaleb@ilnews.org.



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