Monday, February 18, 2008

Tax Reform Happening in Illinois

When I'm not hard at work at my day job, I work with the Citizens Action Project, which is trying to reform taxation in Illinois.

Yesterday at our community's Byron Colby Barn, we made history. We not only co-wrote an Illinois General Assembly bill that will make home assessments more transparent -- Senate Bill 2820 -- we heard a scintillating proposal on how to reform taxation in Illinois that benefits education.

First, we want to thank our ally Senator Michael Bond for introducing the bill in the Senate on Friday. He assures us that it has a good chance of getting out of committee and it's gotten the nod from Democratic party leadership. Sen. Bond immediately garnered the support of State Rep. Ed Sullivan, Jr., also the Fremont Township assessor. Both gentlemen presented details of the bill yesterday to widespread acclaim. Sen. Bond and Dick Hosteny worked together closely on this landmark piece of legislation.

As the originator and principal author of the bill, the Citizens Action Project, a grassroots, bi-partisan taxpayer's non-profit group, sees this as the first step in opening up the black box of assessments not only in Lake County, but statewide (and beyond). The act proposes to:

• Clearly state percentage changes in land and building value compared to the previous year
• Provides detailed components of the median neighborhood assessed valuation. How much are you above or below the average in your community? Our proposal forces assessors to tell you, so that you know how much your assessment varies from the local and township average.
• The bill will trigger direct disclosure from the assessor if your value is at least 10% above that of the neighborhood. All explanations must be in plain English.
• The bill requires that the County Board of Review provide you with all of the necessary information to appeal your assessment.

The object of this bill is to make assessors accountable, their methods transparent and their valuations fair. While it's far from perfect, it's a strong start and the only legislation to date to address these issues.

We wrote this bill with your help and the guidance of our white paper (see, which we published in July of last year and presented to the county board. Despite its veracity and in-depth insights on the broken assessment process, the board has done nothing to remedy the situation. Minor changes were made to the Lake county assessor's website, but the process remains unchanged and the chief county assessor has avoided any significant reforms.

Since we wrote the white paper, we've seen assessments of our neighbors in the oldest part of Grayslake climb up to 200%. And neighbors from all over the county have contacted us telling us that our finding that the assessment process is opaque and unfair is right on track.

Take Action

What can you do now? Here's one of the letters you can send to your Illinois state and county representatives:

Dear Representative [insert last name]:

As a constituent of yours, I urge you to take an active role in supporting SB2820, The Homestead Assessment Transparency Act.

For the average homeowner in Lake County, the assessment practices which we endure have become intolerable. These practices, which vary from township to township, are totally hidden from the citizens and requests for explanations or clarifications are met with obscure, incomplete and unintelligible responses.

In short, we are kept in the dark. We need open, understandable and documented assessment standards.

You can help us reform assessment practices: SB2820 goes a long way in making the assessment process transparent. It mandates complete disclosure of assessment methods and tells homeowners if their home's valuation is above or below the average of their neighborhood. If it deviates 10% or more, the assessor has to tell us why -- in plain English.

I agree with the goals of the Citizens Action Project ( in their efforts to bring Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency to the assessment practices within Lake County. The assessments on real property severely impact all homeowners. We need legislation that puts in place uniform, documented appraisal practices as well as oversight to ensure compliance to these documented practices.


You Can Help

We are a non-partisan, non-profit citizen advocacy group. That means we lobby for you. We will be tackling numerous public-interest issues in the future, but we will need your help. You can help yourself in two ways: Through your time or a donation. While you can't deduct your donation, we will tell you how we are going to spend it. We’ve racked up some bills to do the white paper and we hope to go forward. We need to cover expenses incurred in our non-profit registration (still in progress), printing and other services.

If you choose to donate, please send a check to Frank Mynard, treasurer, Citizens Action Project, PO Box 932, Grayslake, IL 60030.

As for your time, you can either volunteer -- all of our directors and officers currently donate their time -- or become a citizen lobbyist. We have some form letters on our website so that you can contact county and state officials. Let them know how you feel. We have some suggestions for changes. Keep watching our website for news and future developments.


Now for something completely different, well almost.

As if our new legislation weren't enough, we also heard an exciting new proposal from Ralph Martire, the executive director of the Chicago think tank Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. Martire's extensive presentation (I have copies and they are yours for the asking), covered the basic question of why state revenues aren't enough to adequately fund education and other essential services.

In Martire's view, although Illinois ranks fifth nationally with a gross state product of $600 billion -- greater than that of the single economies of Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, Greece, Portugal and Saudi Arabia -- it can't pony up enough money to meet its goals for education funding. Why? Because the state's revenues have not been keeping up with inflation-adjusted costs of running the government and education budgets.

What about the lottery and gambling revenues? They have been going into education coffers, but they were intended as a supplement, so the base revenues that were supplanted by gaming funds were not replaced.

Don't we endure high taxes as it is? Not really. Illinois' total tax burden, which includes local and state taxes, is 45th in the nation. It's the second-lowest tax burden in the Midwest. As you know, several states have been struggling with reforming taxation. Florida, Texas and New Jersey have all either enacted or considered major reform legislation.

Martire's proposal is contained in Senate Bill 750. It would make the state income tax more progressive. As a result, schools would get more than $600 million and there would be property-tax rebates for a portion of school levies on your tax bill.

There's much to discuss in this bill. On its surface, it's a tax swap, shifting the burden from local taxpayers to those with an ability to pay statewide. So instead of a "flat" state income tax, it would rise from 3% to 5%, a rate that would still place Illinois in the lower tier of state income taxation. Lower-income households would receive a tax credit.

Local funding for education would increase and things like the unfunded liability for the state pension funds would be paid off over several years.

While it's too soon to tell whether this bill has traction, it's innovative and controversial. Nevertheless, it's time to begin the dialogue. Study it yourself. Go to for more details. Let your elected representatives know what you think.

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