The graduated income tax amendment took center stage at a virtual forum Wednesday and, like much of the debate on it so far, centered largely on what might happen if the amendment passes or fails.


It will either open the door to more tax increases or it will not. It will either open the door to taxing retirement income or it will not. It will either provide much-needed income to the state or it won’t make much of a dent in the state’s fiscal problems.


"The tax system in this state is simply unfair," said Jake Lewis of the pro-amendment Vote Yes for Fairness. "The middle class, the working poor pay way too high a tax to the state and the people at the very, very top do not pay their fair share."


"We voters are being asked whether or not to radically expanding the taxing powers of state government," said Andrew Nelms of the Coalition to Stop the Proposed Tax Hike Amendment. "Illinois suffers from two chronic, persistent ailments – fiscal mismanagement and corruption. There is nothing fair about giving Springfield politicians more taxing powers."


Voters are being asked if they want to scrap the state’s current flat income tax that applies the same tax rate to all income levels, from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of millions. In its place would be a graduated income tax that applies different rates to different income levels. The General Assembly has approved rates that would result in only those making more than $250,000 getting a tax hike. People below that income level would pay the same or less than they do now.


Opponents like Nelms believe lawmakers will soon be tempted to change those rates and raise taxes on selected income levels. Now, if income taxes are increased, they are raised on everyone because everyone pays the same rate.


"The initial introductory rates don’t have any guarantee they will be in effect for any length of time," Nelms said.


Lewis, though, said the argument comes down to "the wealthiest of the state trying to keep their own sweet deal."


Opponents of the amendment have run ads raising the specter of retirement income being taxed if the amendment is approved. Illinois is one of a few states that has an income tax, but does not tax retirement income.


Nelms conceded that nothing prevents the General Assembly from passing a bill to tax retirement income now. He also agreed that nothing in the amendment explicitly authorizes a tax on retirement income.


"But it makes it easier," he insisted. "This amendment would basically make it easier to tax retirement income."


"The amendment does not tax retirement income," Lewis responded. "Any idea that it would make it easier to tax retirement income is the opposite of the truth. It has nothing to do with the fair tax itself. It has everything to do with trying to scare, distract, confuse voters, especially seniors."


He said no one in the legislature nor Gov. JB Pritzker has expressed any interest in taxing retirement income.


"If people were thinking about it, they wouldn’t say it out loud," Nelms replied. "I think taxpayers can be forgiven for being skeptical of the promises that have been given to them by politicians."


Lewis argued the graduated income tax actually protects retirement income because it will raise over $3 billion that can be used to cover state expenses. Without the amendment, he said, lawmakers may be tempted to raise the income tax on everyone, including placing it on retirees.


Neither man directly answered a question from the public about the state’s ability to cut more than $3 billion from its budget is the amendment fails. Nelms said Illinois needs to find ways to grow its economy which would product more tax revenue. He also said the state should look at ways to cut expenses.


"Raising taxes should be the last resort," he said.


Lewis countered that former Gov. Bruce Rauner wanted the temporary income tax increase to expire.


"We cut taxes and the state nearly imploded," he said. "This state has cut to the bone. We have heard this time and again from the far right, which is if you just cut taxes we can grow ourselves out of this problem. We tried it here and it failed miserably."


Lewis said "the trust issue is the centerpiece of the opposition."


"Let’s worry about accountability," he said. "Let’s worry about holding legislators to their word."


Nelms noted that the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, which is made up of Chicago’s top business leaders, said the "graduated tax amendment, if passed, all but promises that Illinois will not address its long term financial challenges."


"This is not a referendum on whether or not you like Springfield," Lewis said.


The forum was sponsored by the State Journal-Register newspaper and WMAY Radio.


Contact Doug Finke: doug.finke@sj-r.com, 788-1527, twitter.com/dougfinkesjr