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With early voting underway from now through Election Day on Nov. 3, Illinois residents have the chance to fix our upside-down tax system by making the rich pay more. And boy, are the billionaires mad.
Known as the Fair Tax, this constitutional amendment — on the ballot as a referendum — would finally get rid of a tax structure in Illinois that burdens low-income people, and women of color in particular, by forcing them to pay more in taxes than the wealthy as a percentage of their income. Illinoisans have suffered for decades under regressive and inadequate tax policies. After years of organizing to make our tax system more fair, voters now finally have a chance to make this vision come true. When enacted, the Fair Tax is expected to raise about $3 billion in additional revenue annually, all from the state’s wealthiest 3% of residents.
In 2015, Grassroots Collaborative — where I serve as Executive Director — released an analysis showing that while Illinois is the country’s 15th wealthiest state, it was 43rd in spending on education, healthcare and human services. Illinois tax policy has led to ever-worsening income inequality, landing squarely on the backs of poor women in the state. This is unconscionable. We need a tax structure that ensures the richest residents pay more in state income tax, so that we have the resources that women and their families need.
The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy recently released a study looking at how Illinois’ current flat tax structure amounts to a massive racialized wealth transfer from the poorest workers to the ultra-rich. They found that if the graduated rates proposed in the Fair Tax had been in place for the last 20 years, the wealthiest 3% would have paid $27 billion more in taxes over that period. And, Black and Latinx workers making under $250,000 would have paid $4 billion less. Our current flat tax is a legalized racist wealth transfer to the rich, and has resulted in deepened poverty through wealth extraction.
Yet, as expected, a crew of right-wing billionaires is funneling tens of millions of dollars into an opposition campaign, spreading lies and confusion in order to protect their own wealth. With hedge fund manager Ken Griffin as the ring leader, joined by Richard Uihlein, Sam Zell, Craig Duchossois, Muneer Satter and more, the Illinois wealthy elite have contributed over $50 million to fight the measure. Over 93% of contributions reported so far have come from Griffin.
One of the main lies these elites are pushing is that passing the Fair Tax will mean seniors’ retirement income will be taxed. Not only is that untrue, but it is in fact these very billionaires who have used their wealth to fund attacks on pensions and retirees for years. This ballot referendum is shaping up to be a fight of billionaire lies versus the people. To win, we must center Black and brown communities, women and families.
Passing the Fair Tax will help allow Illinois to rebuild its crumbling social safety net and equitably fund services such as education and healthcare. This campaign has significant national implications on our ability to raise progressive revenue, at a time when states across the country are facing massive economic devastation due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and deep racialized austerity.
To win, we need 60% of voters on the question to vote yes, or the support of 50% plus-one of all total voters. Grassroots organizations, advocacy groups and labor unions from across the state have organized to win this change to the tax system for over a decade. Now, with the pandemic making door knocking risky, we’re focused on digital field strategies like texting, virtual phone banks and digital ads targeting Black and Latinx voters.
Our focus on voters of color is critical. The Democratic Party establishment consistently ignores the needs of Black, Latinx and Indigenous voters — not only during elections, but in governing. Grassroots Collaborative and our allies have been engaging in deep organizing conversations with Illinoisans about the role of government, so that we can move people past discouragement and toward seeing elections as opportunities to have their demands met, particularly when followed by continued civic engagement and actions to hold elected officials accountable. Our program has focused on voters who may not come out to the polls if it weren’t for our conversations. And our digital campaign centers Black and Latinx voters, and women in particular.
To win the Fair Tax, and to win other bold demands, we must continue to resource a larger grassroots infrastructure, because we are the trusted messengers to our people, and because we can hold Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker accountable to make sure increased revenue from the Fair Tax leads to greater racial equity, and centers Black communities in particular.
Passing the Fair Tax would demonstrate that it’s possible to win revenue fights at the ballot box, and will provide critical lessons for the future revenue campaigns that will be instrumental to rebuilding our economies while fighting the coming post-pandemic austerity.
This year is full of unique challenges, and people are overcoming these challenges in creative ways. For example, our organizing in Peoria, Illinois around the Fair Tax has centered mutual aid and PPE distribution as key strategies in talking about the role of government and the need for the wealthy to pay their fair share. Across Illinois, people are building community and new circles of support to care for each other. Together, we have a shot at beating the billionaires, but we need all hands on deck.
If you want to help build support for the Fair Tax, you can join us by making calls through a virtual phone bank, talking to your neighbors, texting your family and helping reach as many people as possible before November 3. This is our chance to make sure the state’s working people finally stop paying rich people’s taxes, so that we can raise the revenue we need to rebuild our communities. Let’s seize it.
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