In times of crisis, we count on government to protect us. This year, amid a respiratory health pandemic and urgent calls for racial justice, we have seen the importance of government agencies charged with combating threats to our health and lifting up communities that have been harmed most by pollution, economic inequality and racism. We’ve also seen how our broken tax system has badly eroded the ability of these agencies to meet their mission to protect us.
Bold state policies and investments could pave the way for a strong and just recovery from this crisis, but in Illinois, we have some rebuilding to do. We can begin to turn it around with our votes for the graduated income tax constitutional amendment this fall.
Because the Illinois tax system has long allowed the wealthiest 1% to pay only around half as much in state and local taxes as middle- and lower-income families, the public servants our communities need now have less capacity to help. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Natural Resources — the agencies we count on to protect the water we drink, the air we breathe, and to help us experience the great outdoors — have been damaged by years of disinvestment.
People are drinking water from lead pipes, breathing dirty air and facing new pollution proposals without basic information they need to understand the risks. The IEPA, charged with protecting us from this and much more, now receives essentially no tax dollars, and is entirely dependent on permit fees from the polluters they regulate. Air and water are not being tested as much; fewer enforcement cases are brought against those who cut corners. Our defenses are down against pollution during a respiratory health crisis, when we have less than a decade left to make very deep cuts in carbon pollution, and when the Trump administration is rolling back help from the federal government.
Illinois was once a model for the nation with robust scientific research and monitoring of our natural environment, noticing trends early and taking action to protect people and our natural heritage. Today, the Illinois DNR scrambles to keep our state parks, both natural and economic assets, open and accessible to visitors, and cannot keep such sharp eyes on the health of our world to spot what we might face next year, or next generation.
The state’s broken old way of taxing income is at the core of this crisis. With other important state priorities and obligations demanding more of the same flat revenues, it’s been all too easy to cut the costs associated with environmental protection and our long-term health. That’s fundamentally unfair, as we implicitly pass pollution problems on to future generations, and not the resources to address them.
Illinois’ unfair income tax has not just shortchanged our capacity to secure a safer future; it has compounded the inequity by contributing to disparities in income that are associated with how clean your air and water are. Your ZIP code, or what your neighbors look like, shouldn’t be linked to contamination levels, but here in Illinois pollution is thriving on poverty. Towns and neighborhoods with lower average incomes are dealing with higher rates of air and water emissions, even as their residents are paying a bigger share of the costs of government.
Toxins follow the paths of least resistance. A parent working two jobs, without health care, fearing violence and facing racism is much less likely to hear about a public hearing, file public comments or otherwise resist a source of pollution that would be intolerable in Illinois’ wealthy enclaves.
This fall, Illinois can set that right by approving the graduated income tax constitutional amendment, creating a system where millionaires and billionaires pay more, while 97% of Illinoisans — everyone making less than $250,000 a year — gets a tax cut or pays the same as they do now. The new revenues raised from those at the very top can help reverse the decline in funding for health, science and environmental protection programs. At a time when everything feels beyond our control, fair tax reform is a choice we all can make to chart a course for a better future.
2020 is teaching us that we’re all in this together. We all have a lot of work to do to rebuild from this crisis, and leave Illinois stronger and healthier for our kids and all of our communities in the future. That future starts with voting yes for the graduated income tax amendment for Illinois this fall.
Jack Darin is director of the Sierra Club Illinois. This Op-Ed was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on July 7.