Editorials

You owe Illinois $50,800. Just add 1 percent to your property taxes.

Illinois taxpayers are on the hook for $50,800 in debt, mainly thanks to state retirement systems and retiree health insurance.
Illinois taxpayers are on the hook for $50,800 in debt, mainly thanks to state retirement systems and retiree health insurance. Photo illustration

There was a trifecta of happy Illinois financial news this past week, leading with the fact that you owe Illinois $50,800.

That's how much your state leaders have obligated you to pay.

The grand total is $216.1 billion, based on state financial reports analyzed by the Truth in Accounting group. The lion's share of that debt is $134.3 billion in state pension debt and $52.4 billion in debt for retiree health care.

If the state were paying the right amount into the pension and retiree health systems, then it would need an extra 43 cents for every $1 in employee pay. Or rather, you would, because "a pension is a promise" made by state leaders on your behalf while ignoring how you were going to pay for that promise.

That onerous tax obligation leads to happy news item No. 2: A 1 percent statewide property tax is being touted as the fairest way to fix the pension mess.

Three economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago recently proposed a 1 percent property tax be imposed statewide. That means adding $1,748 a year to the property taxes on the median-valued home in Illinois.

"Taxes will almost certainly have to go up to pay for Illinois’ pension debt. What’s the best way to raise them? We argue that a statewide residential property tax that expires once the debt is repaid is the most fair, efficient, and transparent of all available options," wrote the economists.

That hike would need to continue for 30 years. And remember, Illinois already has the nation's second-highest property tax burden at $4,058 this year on the median home value of $174,800.

So on to good news item No. 3: The proposed Illinois state budget that would take effect July 1, if the legislature and governor suddenly figure out how to act like responsible adults.

Gov. Bruce Rauner's current $37.6 billion budget proposal was analyzed by the non-partisan Civic Federation’s Institute for Illinois’ Fiscal Sustainability. They found it lacking, although they supported several proposals including shifting teacher pension costs back to local schools.

They found the revenue assumptions too rosy by $1.8 billion. They found the expenditures too high, leaving Illinois with a $9.1 billion bill backlog at the end of fiscal year 2019 — not even denting our deadbeat status despite collecting $5 billion more from state income taxes.

You've gotta love this commentary on Rauner's budget from our own state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea.

“His budget’s not, nor ever has, been balanced and he’s never signed one,” Hoffman said. “We’re going to have to do it ourselves.”

So, just how did we get into this little mess to begin with? Any role in all that, Jay? Have you written your check for $50,800 yet?

Actually, we're much more interested in the path Hoffman and friends see out of this quagmire. Soak the middle class with a progressive tax, 1 percent property tax, more gambling, or more debt with more bill backlog?

The answer? All of the above, which is why we called this "happy" news, as defined in Springfield terms where up is down and revenue is expenditure.

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