Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
The guv tries to make taxes fairer, confuses people
January 24, 1991
The State of Illinois does not levy property taxes, but such is the ignorance of the electorate that high local taxes are blamed on Springfield. Which is partly true; the state criminally underfunds public schools, which leave local taxpayers to pick up the slack, but that’s because the same people who balk at paying property taxes balk even more at paying higher state income taxes.
Any politician at any level who tries to talk sense to people about property taxes is taking her career into her hands. Ask Gov. Jim Edgar.
The pundits agree: Jim Edgar's first term will be about taxes. The state's cash balance was so low at his swearing in that the there is talk about stalling payment to creditors; I suspect that one of the reasons the inaugural festivities were paid for by Republican campaign committees was that the caterers wouldn't take a state check. Nearly $300 million in new money is needed for planned new prisons and other mandated new programs—this just to continue to do what the new governor considered a ”lousy” job of running the state.
Millions in new money also could be spent on drug rehab, pension contributions, infrastructure investments, and nutrition, prenatal care, and similar preventative public health programs. Illinois needs dollars, in short, yet the only money-raising proposals so far hinted at by Edgar are what one statehouse correspondent contemptuously dismissed as nickel-and-dime tax and fee increases.
As I often do when I need to get smart quick, I consulted Illinois Issues magazine. The magazine is to Illinois' governing elite what Pravda used to be to the Soviet politburo. Dull but authoritative, its biases perfectly mesh with those in power, which means its articles are as revealing in what they assume as in what they report. In the January issue for example Charles Wheeler III, the veteran reporter who runs the Chicago Sun-Times' statehouse bureau, avers that the state is under "tight fiscal constraints." This, like much statehouse wisdom, is true without being quite accurate. The state is not smack up against constitutional limits on its taxing power, as its municipalities used to be chronically. The constraints on its revenues are political rather than fiscal.
Specifically, I refer to the so-called "property tax revolt." This "revolt" is in fact a tame affair—no public demonstrations to speak of, no mass refusals to pay, just some whining letters to editors and a few incumbents voted out of office for reasons that may or may not have been connected to taxation levels. Nevertheless, our lawmakers are scurrying to offer truce terms; Edgar's staff reportedly is already at work on a property tax reform measure to provide relief for what Wheeler describes, in perfect statehouse-speak, as "beleaguered real estate taxpayers."
To what extent our property taxpayers are beleaguered, or by whom, is seldom made clear. The rise in local levies is the work of local officials whom these same helpless taxpayers elect—and re-elect. And if Illinois property owners are being forced into delinquency in higher than usual numbers because of local tax burdens, it is not being reported. Illinois taxpayers are among the least taxed (measured as a percentage of income) of any industrial state. While Illinois relies rather more on property taxes than many other states, it is hard to call those taxes onerous compared to sister industrial states like New Jersey, at least as measured as a percentage of assessed value.
If property taxes are the crux of the tax debate, school taxes are the crux of the property tax debate. Anti-tax sentiment is keenest in the booming collar counties of Chicago, where a public school teacher can make upwards of $60,000 tax-paid a year. School taxes in many such communities often account for 80 percent of the total local tax bill. Property tax relief in the opinion of such education-minded citizens doesn't mean spending less on their schools; it means paying less for them by making someone else pay more.
Statewide, our spending for schools is not extravagant. Illinois Issues statehouse bureau chief Michael Klemens analyzed state school spending since 1969–70 for the January issue, with interesting results. Total spending was way up, of course, although inflation-adjusted spending for local schools actually dropped by 15 percent in the last 20 years, mainly because there are many fewer kids in the system than there used to be. Inflation-adjusted spending per pupil in the last 20 years has gone up hardly at all.
"Resentment" would be a more accurate word to describe the political dynamic of tax reform than "revolt." it is significant that the tax revolt should rise in those parts of the state where life is pleasantest and residents have the most. The "revolt" is in large part a judgment about the aims as well as the amount of local spending, a lament in fact that spending on urban-type problems should be necessary, because it confirms that the suburban idyll is at an end.
The strict segregation by class of our suburban communities fosters civic selfishness. (The only thing everyone is willing to pay for in Illinois is the one thing everyone in Illinois uses, and that is roads.) One political beneficiary of the tax revolt is new DuPage County chairman Aldo Botti, who ousted a longtime incumbent by promising the residents of Illinois's wealthiest county that they could spend less on roads and flood control and environmental regulation and schools while suffering no drop in the quality of life. "We've been indoctrinated," Botti told Illinois Issues, "to believe that you have to have tax increases to have good government." The latter is indeed a cruel lie—as long as you have some poor town out-of-state where you can ship your garbage, as Botti proposes to do, rather than raise DuPage County taxes to pay for recycling programs.
Our property tax system is indeed unjust, but not because people who own property must pay it. Renters pay property taxes too, but renters, unlike home owners and businesses, are not allowed to write off that part of their housing costs that covers mortgage interest and taxes. (Special exemptions granted politically powerful homeowners like old people only add to that inequity, since local governments simply raise the rates on non-exempt property such as apartments.)
One obvious remedy for the over-reliance on the property tax would be to fund local schools from a more broad-based revenue source such as the state income tax. The ex-Gov. Thompson dared to suggest just that, as his plane was leaving Springfield. But Wheeler speaks for the statehouse establishment when he says that such an intelligent reform "must be ruled out." Because it would be unfair? The flat-rate state income tax is a regressive levy that takes a bigger bite of the disposable income of lower-income Illinoisans than of the rich. (The Chicago chapter of the League of Women Voters has called for a graduated state income tax to remedy just that inequity.) No, the real reason a switch to the income tax must be ruled out is that the Illinoisans who own the most valuable property also enjoy the highest cash incomes, and can be expected to oppose any reform that might result in their having to pay even more in income taxes than they do now in property taxes.
Illinois is not the only state facing these dilemmas. Nationally, a few writers have called eloquently for a return to a "caring society" or a resuscitation of our barely beating "civic heart." Compassion is worth less than common sense, however. As Wheeler says, "It is hard to imagine how real progress can be made without investing state dollars that aren't likely to be there." Exactly. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
Illinois Labor History Society
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
Illinois Migration History 1850-2017
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
Southern Illinois University Press
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
Northern Illinois University Press
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
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