Illinois May Face Confusing Non-Binding Tax Referendum

June 11, 2014

Back in April, I wrote that progressive tax proposals in Illinois had “stalled.” Failing to reach the vote threshold needed to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot for this November, it was widely assumed that progressive tax plans were probably over for this session. However, advocates of a progressive tax took a different tact, and instead introduced a non-binding referendum (HB3816) on Speaker Madigan’s (D) millionaire tax proposal. This referendum didn’t require a 2/3 majority to pass, since it is non-binding. The bill has since passed both the Senate and the House and been sent to the Governor to be signed. Governor Quinn (D) is expected to sign it soon.

The text of the ballot question is as follows:

Should the Illinois Constitution be amended to require that each school district receive additional revenue, based on their number of students, from an additional 3% tax on income greater than one million dollars?

As can be readily seen from the ballot question, any results will be of very little use to policymakers. The structure of the question leaves unclear exactly what is being asked: is it asking voters to endorse a new tax, given that the revenues are distributed to schools? Or is it asking voters to endorse the revenue distribution proposed, given a new tax? Or is it asking two separate questions about revenue distribution and taxes?

The ambiguity in the question is vitally important. Even voters who oppose a new tax hike might vote yes if they favor the distribution method. To put it more clearly, the question can reasonably be read as asking: “If we hypothetically had a new tax, would you want the revenues to go to each school district based on the number of students?”

For voters who read the question that way, a “yes” vote could still include opposition to the tax increase, while a “no” vote could still include support for the tax increase.

The same ambiguity exists if you focus on taxes. The question can be read as asking: “If we hypothetically had to distribute revenues in this specific way, would you accept a new tax?” Voters who vote “yes” may not support the distribution method proposed, and vice versa.

Thus, it’s a good thing this question is non-binding, because, if it were binding, it’s not even clear what policy voters are being asked about. As it is, the question is basically just a formalized opinion poll, and not a particularly well-structured or useful one as that. It has as much legal weight as any other opinion poll, but a far less well-worded question.

Read more on Illinois here.

Read more on millionaires taxes here.

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