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91st District state representative campaigns call each other tax hike lovers

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Lyndsay Jones
/
WGLT
Republican Scott Preston at a campaign-hosted press conference at the McLean County Chamber of Commerce on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022.

Republican Scott Preston held a news conference Monday, criticizing Democratic opponent Sharon Chung's support for a graduated tax initiative made moot by voter rejection nearly two years ago. Meanwhile, recent state Democratic Party mailers on behalf of Chung calls Preston and tax hikes a "love story for the ages."

Both the mailers and the news conference lacked critical context about both Preston and Chung as state representative candidates running in the 91st Illinois House District.

Preston accused Chung, of Bloomington, of supporting tax rates on middle and lower income Illinoisans via her previous support for a statewide graduated income tax initiative that failed nearly two years ago. Even at the time of balloting on the question, supporters of it contradicted Preston's current take on the measure. Supporters said it would lower taxes on most Illinoisans while raising them on the highest earners in the state.

Six days after facing Chung in a debate at Illinois State University, Preston, of Normal, used the Monday news conference at the McLean County Chamber of Commerce to decry Chung's support of the Illinois "fair tax" initiative.

The effort — largely funded by Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker — was aimed at changing the state's flat 5% income tax rate to a graduated or "progressive" tax rate based on income. Voters rejected the referendum question 55% to 45%.

Although Pritzker, a billionaire, funded the fair tax campaign with around $58 million in his own money, the initiative faced financial offenses from billionaire Ken Griffin and Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein. According to a ProPublica analysis of IRS data, Griffin donated spent $54 million fighting the progressive income tax amendment that could have resulted in him paying tens of millions of dollars more in taxes each year.

Uihlein donated $100,000 to the anti-tax campaign, and ProPublica noted he has funded a small government group (Illinois Policy Institute) that fought the tax change with millions of dollars.

A WBEZ analysis determined voter geography was a factor in the failed attempt to change the flat income tax that needed 60% of the vote, or a simple majority of support from those voting in the election. Statewide, just 45% of voters who responded to the ballot question voted for the change, according to vote totals from the Associated Press.

In Chicago, most voters supported the measure with more than 71% voting “yes.” The greatest support came from the city’s majority-Black wards, where more than 82% voted for the graduated income tax, according to the WBEZ analysis of tallies. But support for the graduated income tax waned outside the city. And the farther away voters were from Chicago, the more they voted “no” on the ballot question. In McLean County, around 62% of voters rejected the referendum question.

"Chung ... talked about ... about how she would love to see that tax fight happen moving forward," Preston told a group of supporters and media on Monday. "We can't let that happen in central Illinois or Bloomington-Normal — the ramifications are too big."

Preston stumped on the graduated tax issue Monday with other state Republican notables, including Secretary of State candidate and 105th House District Rep. Dan Brady, House minority leader Jim Durkin, and state treasurer candidate Tom Demmer.

Asked by a reporter whether there is a chance of a similar proposal being revived in the near future, Durkin said, "Bring it on," adding, "You'd think they would have learned their lesson the last time."

Added Demmer: "People said no. Illinois has some of the highest tax burden in the country already — we don't need to raise that burden. ...This was not just a Republican effort. We led the charge, but we were joined by a lot of independents and Democrats who agreed with these two issues: The taxes are too high and they don't trust how their dollars are being spent today."

Illinois is one of nine states with a flat income tax rate; there are 32 states with a progressive income tax rate.

In a statement to WGLT, Chung said the "only person trying to revive the 2020 tax amendment debate is Scott Preston," adding Monday's news conference was a distraction from "his own record speak(ing) for itself: his tax increases show that he doesn’t stand for working and middle class families."

"I want to cut taxes on middle class families," Chung wrote. "I support expanding exemptions for people in our community and closing corporate loopholes that help billionaires avoid paying anything."

In recent days, Preston has been the target of direct mailers from the Democratic Party of Illinois; the mailers accuse the Republican of a “Love Story for the Ages” with tax hikes.

The mailers cite numerous votes Preston has made in as a member of the Normal Town Council, and expands on an attack made by his GOP primary opponent, Jim Fisher.

"Every one of those votes was unanimous — so I mean, take it up with Mayor (Chris) Koos and my council colleagues," Preston told WGLT on Monday. They are "a result of the state of Illinois putting unfunded mandates on local governments across the state to fund our police and fire our public safety pensions. That's what it's about. It's not a funded mandate; we are forced — but we are also glad — to fund our pensions for public safety officers."

WGLT fact checked the mailers. Parts are true, but misleading or lacking in context. Parts of it are untrue.

The Claim - Preston voted for higher taxes six times, in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2021.

Analysis — The claim appears to relate to votes Preston made on the town's annual tax levy. The Town of Normal has mainly used property taxes to fund its state-mandated pension and retirement contributions to the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, fire and police pension funds, and Social Security for some workers. In most years, the portion of the levy used for general operations was unchanged, per town policy. More recently, the town eliminated any property tax money for the General Fund and all of the property tax money collected for the town supports pensions. While it is true in an absolute sense that property tax dollars rose in the years cited, the mailer ignores whether overall property values rose within the town, whether the tax rate rose or fell, and the actual impact on homeowners estimated by the town when Preston cast his votes, made with then available information, and that increases have mostly compared favorably to inflation rates.

2013: The levy rose 11.28%, or $1.1 million. The tax rate also rose by 0.1390 cents. It came in a year with a projected decline in property values town-wide. It also came a year after steep budget cuts and restored some of those cuts.

2014: The levy rose by 2.3%, or $255,000. The property tax rate rose slightly and the estimated impact to the owner of a home valued at $150,000 was $5.93.

2015: The levy rose by 2.3%, or $262,000. The tax rate was projected to fall based on estimated property value increases, reducing the tax bill for residents.

2016: The levy rose by 2.3% or $305,000. The tax rate rose by an estimated 1.98%. The estimated impact to the owner of a $165,000 home was $13.

2017: The tax levy rose by 6.4% or $841,000 The tax rate rose 6.38%. The owner of a $165,000 home was projected to see a $44 increase in their town property Tax bill. The increase supported fire and police pension obligations in spite of the town council decision to eliminate any General Fund use of property tax money and a reduction in the allocation for the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund.

2021: The levy rose by 2.45%, $326,000. The town projected the tax rate to remain unchanged.

Verdict: Partly false, lacking context, and misleading.

The Claim: Preston voted for a motor fuel tax.

Analysis: The town approved a 4-cent per gallon motor fuel tax in 2015. It was projected to generate $600,000 per year. Normal followed Bloomington in implementing the tax. At the time, 44 other Illinois municipalities had such taxes, mainly to support transportation projects. The town had struggled to maintain existing services and a balanced budget and had cut sharply the year before. The money did not go to any new programs.

Verdict: True but lacks context.

The Claim: Scott Preston voted for sewer rate increases.

Analysis: The rate is a user fee, not a tax. It supports water and sewer services and historically has had little flexibility to support changes to infrastructure. The council approved the start of a multi-year schedule of increases in the sewer rate taking effect in 2017. The increase was to produce an estimated $47,000 of additional revenue for the Sewer Fund. The average household experienced a 24-cent increase in their monthly cost, or $2.88 for the entire year. The reason for the scheduled increases was to pay for improvements to an aging infrastructure.

Verdict: Misleading.

Such mailers are common in competitive races by both major political parties. State parties tend to put them out to offer the individual candidate plausible deniability, or actual obliviousness of the misleading material.

The new 91st House District, stretching from Bloomington-Normal to East Peoria and Bartonville, was drawn to support a state Senate district (now represented by Democrat Dave Koehler). Two House districts fit inside each Senate district. The 91st has a slight Democratic tilt, according to voter tallies from the last election, but some think this year favors Republican candidates. The contest has attracted attention from both state parties because it is perhaps the only downstate seat that is viewed as competitive.

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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