The state lost nearly 80,000 people in the year that ended July 2020, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data. That’s 22,000 more than were lost the year before and the seventh consecutive loss of population in the past 10 years. Illinois led the nation in population decline for the past decade at 255,000.
Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, told the Economic Club of Chicago on Wednesday the state has been losing population for years. Without details, he said the state needs to support small and big businesses. He also said leaders need to unite on messaging.
Illinoisans who thought new House Speaker Chris Welch might change the direction Illinois is headed in just got a dose of reality. Welch recently said he wants Illinois to have a second go at a progressive tax scheme, this time committing the tax hike proceeds to pensions. Illinoisans rejected Gov. Pritzker’s first attempt, he said, because they didn’t know where the tax hike dollars would go. “…folks don’t trust us,” Welch said.
Welch is right about the trust factor, but he’s wrong to think Illinoisans will suddenly approve a tax hike just because the legislature promises to funnel the new revenues to pensions. They know it’s unlikely politicians will keep their promise. And Illinoisans know the state’s unreformed pensions are a corrupted mess – that they’d be throwing good money after bad.
New Democratic House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch suggested Wednesday that the state should again ask voters to approve a graduated-rate income tax, but this time target the new money toward paying down Illinois’ massive pension debt.
The call for a do-over came after voters in November overwhelmingly rejected Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s graduated income tax proposal. Opponents, including Republicans and business leaders, used distrust of Springfield to argue for keeping the state constitution’s flat tax requirement.
If Pritzker and Welch are serious about winning trust, they’ll allow Illinoisans to vote on a standalone constitutional amendment repealing the so-called “pension protection clause.” To build public support and treat retirees fairly, such an amendment could be narrowly drawn to permit only reductions in future pension increases under the COLA mechanism.
Sure, public employee unions are likely to fight any change in pensions. But it’s worth trying to win their support. It can be done; Arizona unions backed a narrow amendment to a pension protection clause in that state’s constitution. If unions won’t cooperate, Pritzker and Welch should forge ahead anyway, as Rhode Island officials—led by Democrat Gina Raimondo—did in tackling a similar pension crisis.
Only after passing such an amendment and reducing the overall pension obligation can state officials justifiably ask taxpayers for money to close the remaining gap. Would a graduated income tax be the right way to raise the necessary revenue? Maybe. I’m not opposed to it on principle. The vast majority of states with an income tax charge higher rates on higher incomes. And the necessity of a constitutional amendment would give voters the final say.
Pension costs are already eating away at Illinois government services. The ballooning costs caused a nearly one-third cut since 2000 in core services such as child protection, state police, mental health and college money for low-income students.
Pension contributions accounted for less than 4% of Illinois’ general funds budget from 1990 through 1997 but have grown to consume 28.5% of the budget. Still, the pension debt has mushroomed to $144.4 billion by the state’s estimates, which more realistically was at an all-time high of $261 billion at the end of fiscal year 2020 according to Moody’s Investors Service calculations using more realistic assumptions. In any case, public pension debt is eating a larger chunk of Illinois’ gross domestic product than anywhere else.