In Springfield, when a big bill passes in a flurry of last-minute dealmaking, they call it a Christmas tree.
That’s because in those final days, expensive and gaudy gifts are added—an infrastructure project here, a tweak to the wording there—in order to win votes. The state’s landmark gambling bill of 2019 was one such: growing from 29 pages to 816 pages overnight and passed over a weekend without open hearings or due consideration.
No wonder the new law was such a mess and still needs more fixing, even after the fall veto session.
Headed into 2020, our lawmakers in Springfield have a shot at getting through the legislative session without such Christmas tree inducements on at least one major effort: the push to reduce property taxes. That’s because they’re aiming to introduce the biggest pieces of legislation early in the session, and doing so in a way that could constrain the costly ornament phase of the Springfield lawmaking process.
They might even give an informed public a chance to weigh in before the Legislature votes. Now that would be an unusual gift!
This cheery and admittedly hopeful vision would come as the upshot of efforts by a working group of state lawmakers seeking ways to cut the state’s property taxes. Gov. J.B. Pritzker launched the task force in August to tackle the problem of high property taxes, with a Dec. 31 deadline to present major ideas.
The group has broken the work into seven topics: the costly burden of too many local governments, the impact of “tax caps” on local government revenues, whether to place new limits on tax-increment financing districts and so forth.
Wonky stuff, to be sure. But the root causes of high property taxes are complex and intractable, so the wonkfest is warranted.
Pritzker had a remarkably productive first legislative session, built on the strength of supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature. Together, they passed a proposed progressive tax amendment to the state constitution, the gambling bill and cannabis legislation in one late-session sprint. Tackling the property tax problem in seven parts could be just as ambitious.
History warns us to be skeptical of the blue-ribbon-commission approach to legislation. The bigger the problem, it often seems, the more modest the end results. But Pritzker’s pension-reform group helped pave the way for passage of municipal pension consolidation last month, and this group’s effort to stand history on its head could buck the usual record of disappointment, too.
We don’t yet know the specifics of the property tax proposals. But according to state Rep. Sam Yingling, the Grayslake Democrat chairing the panel, the plan is to bring all seven planks forward together soon after the session convenes in January, have them considered concurrently and bring them to a vote as a package, too.
The final tally will happen, inevitably, at the end of the session. “I don’t see any scenario in which individual bills are voted on unless they are all daisy-chained together,” Yingling says.
There even is an outside chance this approach could reduce the Christmas tree effect. Here’s why: With seven interrelated proposals moving through at once, the give and take of the legislative process can happen on substantive parts of the many proposals. There could be less need to induce votes with special-interest favors tucked under a Christmas tree.
If, say, one part of the package reduces the school funding formula, that could be offset by revenue-generating changes to TIF districts that raise costs for developers, who in turn might be placated by changes to property tax caps that make high-end homeowners share the increased tax burden, too.
The give and take and give again will still happen. But if the bills go in early, get open hearings and are subject to trade-offs among the component parts, the chance for costly mischief and ill-considered policy could be reduced.
This daisy chain of legislative effort could go terribly wrong, of course, or collapse under the weight of its own ambitions. But if lawmakers do their jobs, and taxpayers hold them accountable, there’s a chance it could turn out well.
At the risk of sounding like Grinches at this time of year, the chorus from those of us with so much at stake in the process should be clear: No more Christmas trees.