At a meeting hosted by the nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group Action for a Better Tomorrow (ABT) on July 23, Democratic gubernatorial candidate and current State Senator Daniel Biss spoke about Illinois’ unfair tax system and its broken political system, both of which, he said, harm many Illinois residents.
About 70 people attended the event, held at Grace Lutheran Church, at which Sen. Biss outlined how he came to the decision to run for governor, what he has learned so far in his campaign, and why tax reform is critical for the State’s finances to be stable and sustainable.
For nearly an hour afterward, Sen. Biss answered questions from the audience about education funding, the State’s economy, gun laws, his platform, tax reform (again) – and why he thinks his campaign can succeed in a field crowded with billionaires.
In introducing the candidate, Alisa Kaplan, co-founder of the Evanston chapter of ABT, said he graduated from Harvard summa cum laude and earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He came to Illinois to be a mathematics professor at University of Chicago and became involved in politics in the aftermath of 9/11. He was elected State Representative in 2010 and State Senator in 2012.
“In an era of reality-show politicians,” Ms. Kaplan said, “Daniel Biss is somewhat of an egghead. … When you get down to it a lot of our problems are math ones.”
Sen. Biss outlined things he would like to accomplish as governor:
Fix the unfair tax system
With the current budget, the incomes tax rate in Illinois is 4.95%.
Under the Illinois Constitution, the State has a flat-tax system; that is, every resident is taxed at the same rate. “We have the most regressive taxes in the union,” Sen. Biss said.
To change the flat-tax system to a “progressive” or “graduated-tax” system thus requires a Constitutional amendment. Several organizations attempted to have a referendum question supporting a graduated income tax placed on the November 2016 ballot, but their efforts failed.
The flat-tax has “harmed our ability to have enough funds and to have a fair tax system,” said Sen. Biss. “What we need for tax reform is to amend the Constitution to have a progressive tax system. … I have a fundamental belief that as society changes, the tax code has got to follow. We have to tax where the money is.”
Wisconsin, for example, has a top tax rate of 7% for those who make $365,000 or more. Its lowest tax rate – for those who earn the least amount of taxable income – is lower than Illinois’ flat-tax rate. “If we were to import Wisconsin’s tax code into Illinois, we would have $10 billion more per year,” Sen. Biss said.
Have a school-funding system that works
The majority of funding for public schools in Illinois – about 80% in Evanston – comes from property-tax revenues. The wealthier public school districts thus have more local funds to spend on their students.
““There are people that benefit from our grotesque method of school funding. We have a State government that has been run by the few, and they have ignored the rest,” Sen. Biss said.
“The way to fund a school system is not to rely on property taxes. We need to have a difficult but important conversation about school funding. There are 49 states we could learn from.”
A stab at school-funding reform is Senate Bill 1, which, he said, “is an improvement but a modest one to school funding.” Governor Bruce Rauner has threatened a line-item veto to alienate certain funding for the Chicago Public School System. Under recently passed legislation, no school funding will be released unless SB1 or an evidence-based school-funding bill is enacted.
Invest in communities
“The State government has essentially walked away from a lot of the State,” Sen. Biss said. “It has been a downward spiral of disinvestment. The government has to start putting people to work.” Even when there are capital projects in disadvantaged or underserved neighborhoods, for example, the companies often do not hire locally.
Fix the campaign-financing system
“Illinois has been working for the few people who finance the campaigns,” Sen. Biss said. “We have to change the way campaigns are financed. We need to peel the pernicious influence of money out of the system. … The way we run … has a lot to do with what we will do when we get into office.”
Sen. Biss noted the Democratic field of potential gubernatorial candidates has its share of billionaires – a group in which he is not included. “As a Democratic party,” he asked, “are we going to have an election, or are we going to have an auction?”
A Rating of Zero From the NRA
Asked whether he thought his “zero” rating from the National Rifle Association would hurt his campaign in other parts of the State, Sen. Biss gave a three-part answer: He is “proud” of his record, but he feels using divisive rhetoric to discuss the matter is “problematic.” NRA policy, he said, is driven more by the manufacturers of weapons than by law-abiding gun owners. He is looking to build bridges with law-abiding gun owners so that sensible and reasonable gun laws can be crafted and passed. He said he would also work both sides of the aisle to make Illinois a better state for all residents.
Sen. Biss said he loves running for governor, and he in traveling across the state he has seen “there exist everywhere new progressive activists. People are hungry to figure out what we can do together to fix all this. I think this is the moment to build that movement.”