As the tax debate has gone historically, most Democrats are for a progressive tax structure in Illinois. All Republicans in the Illinois House and Senate are for keeping the flat rate we currently have. Not all Democrats are for a progressive tax, though.
State Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat, has gone so far as to sign on as a chief co-sponsor of a resolution to oppose a progressive income tax. In an interview with Reboot Illinois' Madeleine Doubek, Franks talks about his opposition, his approach to taxes, generally, the state's spending and budget problems and the ongoing pension crisis.
Q: Most elected Democrats want a progressive tax. Why not you?
A: "I've never supported any tax increase. In Illinois, I don't think we have a revenue problem; I think it's a spending problem. I don't think we should be asking taxpayers for more money when we don't spend what they give us wisely."
Q: How do your Democratic colleagues need to adjust their thinking because many do support a progressive tax amendment?
A: "The great thing about democracy is we can respectfully disagree with others' opinions. But I think what we ought to do is have a serious discussion, which we have not really had. I've been trying to for a long time. This is something on how we actually do our budget. When we passed the law a few years ago, we were supposed to be budgeting for results, but it's become a joke under this governor. We're supposed to set up these goals to get there, but he sets up these goals like we want to have a world-class education instead of saying he wants to have actual results, and it's all touchy-feely and there is nothing that's objective.
"For example, last year I had to amend a bill five times to get it passed...I worked and worked and worked it, finally get it passed in the House, then, of course, they gut it in the Senate. ... Commissions that haven't met for two years are somehow sacred cows in Illinois.
A few years ago, I had a bill up to eliminate the pensions and healthcare, for instance, for people on these boards and commissions. I couldn't even get that bill out of committee. Finally, this year, I was able to pass it unanimously through the House and the Senate, so we are having some changes in the Legislature, but it's at a glacial pace."
Q: Why is it so challenging?
"I'm not sure my colleagues understand the severity of the situation that we're in. We have the second-highest unemployment rate in the entire country. We have the worst funded pension system in the entire country, coupled with the worst credit rating in the entire country and one of the worst in the world, and these are not a coincidence. I'm not sure people understand that when you get an A minus credit rating it's not like you're in school and an A minus is good. A minus with a credit rating is like a D now...I'm not sure people understand the correlation between a credit rating and what that does to the state and their ability to borrow.
"We've got a lot of problems...I don't know, entrenched ideas are hard to overcome. We've got agencies that nobody in this state knows what they do. Nobody...
"Let's take this year's budget, for example, when we had anticipated revenues higher than we thought. Instead of paying off our $8 billion on backlogged bills, what do we do? We go and spend $2 billion more on these programs and pork projects. There's no fiscal discipline whatsoever. If I were governor, I would veto every pork project. I would consolidate state agencies. I would eliminate some state agencies. Until we do those things, I don't see how we can simply ask the taxpayers to pay more to throw more money at a problem. We've never had higher revenues than we have now, but we have larger fiscal problems. You have 35 states who are debating whether they should cut their tax rates. Our only question is how much higher should we be charging our citizens. It's the wrong debate to be having."
Q: How do you respond to the argument that some of those 35 states have a progressive tax and Illinois doesn't?
A: "Some states that do much better than us have no tax at all and we need to look at that as well. Part of the problem is that what we have in this state is a lack of focus. ...If you're a business coming into this state, you're not sure of what's going to happen regulatory-wise. It's difficult for people to do business in this state. Our workers' compensation rates are higher than our neighbors... I would argue that while those states that are doing well may have progressive taxes, our corporate tax rate is higher than most, and also states that are doing better than us have lower tax rates. I think the first thing you need to look at is not the tax rate but how we spend our money."
Q: Do you have any plans to run for governor or statewide office?
A: "I don't know. Perhaps. I'm still thinking about it. But no, not for governor. I think the Democrats are going to have a formidable candidate against our governor now. I'm certainly hoping at least one of the two who are considering it publicly come forward because I certainly think we can do better than our current administration."
Q: Why are so many Democrats jumping on the progressive tax bandwagon?
A: "I don't know. I don't know who has. If you look at, right now, we have a progressive tax federally so it's not a big leap up. It's not like it's radical. Right now everyone pays a progressive tax. Right now, you could make the argument that what we have as a flat tax is regressive because, relatively, it's more for someone who makes less. So what I'd argue we have now is regressive, but I'm not ready to be involved in that debate. The debate I see is about the revenue that we squander. Instead of paying of paying our bills and tightening our belts, we do pork projects. But I can certainly understand their argument and I don't think they're that far-fetched. But unfortunately in Illinois, because we haven't done what we should be doing, no matter what we do, it will never be enough money. You should not feed the beast. You need to curb it. I think we can provide all the things we need to as a state, provide our children with world-class education which we are obligated to do, but we can do it more effectively and more efficiently."
Q: Have you looked at any polling on this whole tax question?
A: "I haven't. Do you have any?"
Q: No, I don't. Was it a factor?
A: "I could care less what polls say. It's never once factored into my decisions."
Q: Did you vote for budget that got passed last month?
A: "I haven't voted for a budget in years. There were 47 "no" votes and I was number 47."
Q: What do you think should happen with the temporary income tax increase?
A: "I voted against the income tax increase arguing that A) we didn't need it and B) it wasn't going to be temporary. Once you get this extra money, people become addicted to it. We wouldn't be able to get rid of this unless we change our budgeting. As a result of the failures we've had in Springfield with the pension, among others, it's just an angle to make the tax increase permanent. I don't think that's the ultimate goal but I think that's going to be a byproduct of our inefficiencies and our inability to get the work done that, as a result, people are going to be taxed higher because we can't get our job done in Springfield."
Q: What do you tell your colleagues about the pension debt?
A: "I've been getting up on the House floor since January saying we should do no other business except our pensions. I asked for everyone not to call any bills. I asked the governor to call a special session concurrent with our regular session where we would only deal with the one issue and have it on the House floor in an ultimate meeting of the whole and just do that and nothing else. We've got to fix this issue."
Q: What do you make of the creation of a conference committee?
A: "I think we should have gone with my suggestion back in January, and also my suggestion last May to keep us there all last summer to get it done. I think it shouldn't be ten people as well. I think it should be the entire General Assembly and it should be open so all the citizens can see it and everyone can be involved. Otherwise, it's policy being done behind closed doors."
Q: Do you support the Madigan-Nekritz approach to this?
A: "I voted for SB1 (the Madigan-Nekritz approach). Unfortunately, many of my Republican colleagues didn't. I think if they would have, we would be in a different position right now because we would have a veto-proof majority, we'd have a better negotiating plan. But only 22 of the 47 House Republicans voted for it. Less than 50 percent, which I think is a major policy error by my friends on the other side. It's not only a Democratic issue, but also the Republicans who are supposed to be fiscally conservative and fiscally responsible, when they don't do the responsible thing it makes it harder for everybody else. I don't want to paint it as a Democratic issue. There's plenty of blame to go around."
Q: How do we get past the blame and get something done?
A: "I want an add-on committee of the whole. I want everyone to just work on it together. There's way too much politics here. I've been saying this for over a year. We should totally be doing this and nothing else."
Q: Why aren't your fellow Democrats persuaded by that argument?
A: "I don't know. Why aren't my fellow Republicans persuaded by that argument? Tom Cross gets credit. After I came up with that, he came up and supported that and said he would have his caucus support that. But they never pushed it. I asked him a number of times to get some of the members to. I want to get more people engaged because I've seen a lot of people just walk away and just not get involved at all. That's what we need to be doing."
Want to read more about progressive vs. flat income tax structures? We've got it all right here:
"New 'fair tax' resolutions, same old questions," Reboot Illinois editorial, June 2013
"Flat income tax? Progressive tax? No state income tax? A nationwide overview," Reboot Illinois infographic
"Illinois' flat tax system: Outdated, unfair," Ralph Martire, Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, December 2012
"Progressive tax is code for 'tax increase,'" John Tillman, Illinois Policy Institute
"Amendment sponsor: Progressive tax is fair tax," State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana
"Progressive tax punishes business for success," David From, Americans for Prosperity
"Supporters of progressive tax have a long road ahead," blog post, Reboot Illinois editor Matt Dietrich, March 2013
See more here.