Earlier this year, Illinois took a major step toward balancing its budget for the upcoming fiscal year by increasing its flat-rate income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent. Even at that time, however, lawmakers were under no illusion that this important step had solved the state's fiscal woes. A new report from the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability provides a sobering view of just how big a budgeting challenge Illinois lawmakers still face. Among the findings of the CTBA report is that even after the recent tax hike, Governor Pat Quinn's budget proposal for fiscal year 2012 would leave the state with a revenue shortfall of over $1 billion.
This report was released at CTBA's annual fiscal symposium last week. The symposium, aptly entitled "$7 Billion in New Revenue: Now What Do We Do?", included illuminating discussions of a number of spending and tax reform strategies that could help the state deal with its remaining short-term budget deficits, while simultaneously strengthening the state's long-term fiscal position. Keynote speaker and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton reiterated his previous public statement that he viewed the state's costly and regressive income tax exemption for retirement income as a tax break worth examining as part of this process. And a new ITEP report released to coincide with ITEP staff's participation in this symposium, "Should Illinois Tax Retirement Income?", confirms Cullerton's view. The report shows that this one tax break costs Illinois almost $1 billion a year -- roughly the size of the state's remaining fiscal shortfall.
Illinois lawmakers took an important step earlier this year to pay for needed public services in the short run -- but it's important to recognize that this year's legislative actions to date have done virtually nothing to achieve the structural tax reforms needed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the state's tax system. ITEP's report -- and Senator Cullerton's willingness to identify the costliest income tax break in Illinois as fair game -- clearly identifies one important strategy for achieving these long-term reforms.