Unfunded Mandates Continue to Burden Homeowners

house-163526_1280.jpgProperty tax bills have landed in mailboxes. Every year, without fail, the taxes increase. Yes, sometimes, you’ll see a freeze in the levy of one unit of government or another, but the total always goes up.

When you compare the median property tax burden in Lombard versus median household income, property taxes come to between 8%-10% of the average household’s take home pay. And of course, the concept of “take home pay” only applies if you have a job: for folks who are retired or unemployed, there’s no comparison. The property tax burden is just massive. 

For nearly all of us who live in the suburbs of Chicago, property taxes are the highest state taxes we pay. And we’re not a small group: roughly 5.5 million of us live in the suburbs—over 40% of the entire population of Illinois.

In Springfield, few want to grapple with the heavy burden of property taxes. People prefer debating the state income tax rate: whether it should stay at the current 3.75% or move closer to 5%. But while they’re arguing over quarter-points in the income tax rate, to support ever-expanding state spending, folks are being taxed out of their homes.

Recently, I was talking with a legislator whose district borders Wisconsin. That district has suffered dearly from the suburban property tax crisis. In fact, that legislator’s own sister, child, and neighbors, all longtime Illinoisans, have just closed sales on homes in Wisconsin. While each person had a different list of reasons to leave, the number one reason on every list was property taxes. There are similar stories in our area and across Chicagoland.

But there is some measure of hope. The governor has demanded a property tax freeze as part of recent negotiations, and it appears that, if a real vote were allowed, a majority of legislators would support a freeze. We think the votes are there, because over the past couple years, Speaker Mike Madigan has scheduled almost 20 separate House votes on bills to freeze property taxes. While most of these votes were successful, not one of the bills was actually intended to be considered by the Senate, much less reach the governor’s desk. These were “show votes,” meant to provide political cover for vulnerable representatives, all while property taxes continue to rise unabated back in their districts.

While a freeze will save homeowners from increases in the short-term, the only way to get property taxes down in the long term is significant reform to the way we deliver services locally. For instance, there are over 150 unfunded mandates from Springfield that drive up costs in our local school districts—and every mandate requires additional administrators to oversee compliance, both in our local districts and inside the state government. In fact, some of these mandates only apply to our school districts and not to the Chicago Public Schools, but there’s still heavy resistance to giving our districts the same flexibility under state law.

There are just three weeks to go until the May 31 end of this year’s legislative session. I’ll keep working for three things: 1) a realistic balanced budget, 2) pro-business and pro-job reforms, and 3) tax relief. The alternative—more deficit spending, more families and businesses leaving, and ever higher taxes—is unthinkable.