By Jim Bowman
In a 2013 book, Illinois Blues: How the Ruling Party Talks to Voters, I asked:
Do politicians talk funny? To adapt what one of them said long ago about fooling people, some of them talk funny all of the time, all of them some of the time.
"This little book," I continued, "tells how two of them and a few of their colleagues talked to constituents in Chicago-suburban Oak Park and neighboring towns and neighborhoods in the summer and fall of 2013."
I called it "an exercise in synecdoche, by which parts stand for the whole, in this case some politicians for the entire breed. By these few you shall know the breed, at least in blue Illinois, where Democrats rule.
From Chapter 1, "There Are No Crises Here,"
Senator Don Harmon of Oak Park, Illinois, high in the ranks of the Ruling Party and leader of the Democratic Party of Oak Park, took to the podium at Oak Park's Carleton Hotel on a day in late June of 2013 for his annual breakfast-event report to the Oak Park Business and Civic Council.
It was time once more to explain things to bankers, business owners and operators, and other issues-aware citizens and taxpayers with varying amounts and shapes of skin in the game, including the joy and satisfaction that arises from the taste and smell of progressive politics.
The state was in turmoil. The two legislative chambers were at odds over a pension solution. The Democrat governor, a one-time gadfly with Oak Park roots, was soon to cut off legislators' pay checks to goad them to activity.
Harmon was optimistic. He protested "sky [is] falling" rhetoric about the pension problem and praised the legislature for having "cut government to the bone."
"We can afford" pension payments, he said. "We never missed a payment, we never will." Here and throughout, pensioners' worries but not the state's fiscal problems were at the forefront.
"It's a budget issue," he said, to further calm pensioners' worries. Indeed, the budget just passed, a "pretty good" one, "pays the pension fully" for the coming year.
He joked at one point. Legislators "kind of solved the pension problem with the 2010 reform," tightening benefits for new hires. "'Tain't funny, McGee," Fibber's wife Molly used to tell him on the radio.
As for the recent all-Democrat gridlock performance in Springfield, it was a matter of "honest, principled differences." He was at the Carleton that day to put matters in a kindly light.
He praised the temporary income-tax increase of 2011, from 3% to 5%, which he called a two-percent raise. Republicans called it 67%.
So did Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, and Huffington Post, the latter adding that it was a "massive increase." As indeed it was, "taking an additional week's pay from every worker in the state," in the words of fiscal watchdog Illinois Policy Institute
Harmon didn't see it that way. Nor did he or his fellow Democrats anticipate any expected erosion of the taxpayer base stemming from this or any other tax increase. But by August of 2015, IRS figures were showing that for the first time since it began keeping such figures in 1990, Illinois had lost population and wealth to every other Midwestern state.
Indeed, he had more tax revenue in mind, talking up a progressive state income tax amendment – imposing higher rates for higher earners, calling it a "fair tax." He had just proposed it, on the last day of the just-completed legislative session, and Republicans had balked.
He was "not surprised" at this, he told a downstate newspaper, because Republicans are beholden to "the more well-off," for whose interests they would be expected to "step up," so as to "perpetuate an unfair tax." It was a partisan slap of a sort that Oak Parkers rarely heard from him.
This "fair tax" was a solution to fiscal problems that he could warm up to. Not so budget cuts. His party stood for largesse, not cuts. The "fair tax" term was worth noting. It had been in use at least since 1994, when three Houston businessmen founded the advocacy organization Americans for Fair Taxation.
Republicans in Congress used it in 1999, when they introduced a national sales tax intended to simplify tax returns and sharply reduce the role of the IRS if not put it out of business. It had also been a matter of presidential-campaign discussion in 2008.
Harmon's fair tax was nothing like that, of course. Rather, it was imposed according to income, not consumption. It was progressive, its rate rising with income -- spreading the wealth, say Democrats, who normally rejoice in the word.
Not this time. Harmon was blazing a new trail, deftly changing the phrase's widely accepted meaning. For marketing reasons, he was to acknowledge in a later forum. He was good at this.
As for the two-percent reference, from 3% to the temporary 5% of 2011, he was bold indeed, to deliver such a talking point to an Oak Park audience, as if from 3% to 6% wouldn't double the taxation. One of his audience flagged it in a letter to the local Oak Leaves following the Carleton session.
"In a finance-centric discussion replete with bar graphs, pie charts and other data points," wrote library board member Matt Baron, Harmon had "repeatedly referred to the income tax hike as a two-percent increase. At the same time, he dismissed those (including 'our Republican friends') who referred to it as a 67-percent increase."
He "either . . . has a tiny hole in his grasp of math or . . . is reluctant to acknowledge the difference between percent change and percentage point change. Starting at 3 percent and then going to 5 percent is a two-percentage-point increase. But it's a 66.7-percent change."
What's more, "the actual impact of the hike" in tax paid for an income of $50,000 was $1,000 a year, from $1,500 to $2,500 in state income tax, in contrast to $30 for a 2 percent increase, from $1,500 to $1,530," Baron continued.
"In public discourse," he concluded, we should "steer clear of Democratic math, Republican math or any partisan math" but "stick to good, old-fashioned, apolitical math."
Another Oak Parker, also online, hinted at dishonesty: "A little linguistic shift (or sleight-of-hand?) can change the picture utterly."
A home-grown product in his 12th year as Oak Park's senator, Harmon had something to learn about the village's people, in this case whether, using word games, he could fool all of them all of the time.
(More later from this book about Oak Park, its politicos, and the state of the state.)
Answer Book 2019
To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2019 Answer Book, please click here.
Sign-up to get the latest news updates for Oak Park and River Forest.
|Submit Letter To The Editor|
|Place a Classified Ad|