Rep. Mah: Springfield partisan divide exaggerated, but not on taxes

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Fair Tax failure could lead to tax hike combined with new credits, exemptions

State Rep. Theresa Mah speaks at a protest on the subminimum wage in Chicago this summer. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

State Rep. Theresa Mah speaks at a protest on the subminimum wage in Chicago this summer. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

A leader of the state House Progressive Caucus says the partisan divide in Springfield is exaggerated, by the media and by voters statewide, but not necessarily on the taxation issue in the wake of the failure of the Fair Tax Amendment.

“I’m really disappointed that the Fair Tax failed,” said Rep. Theresa Mah of Chicago in a webinar Thursday conducted by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University under its series “Understanding Our New World.” “It’s going to make our jobs a lot harder in the legislature, because none of us wants to raise taxes for the average taxpayer. And in putting the Fair Tax Amendment on the ballot, that was our intention — to make sure that the vast majority of Illinois residents wouldn’t have to pay more taxes, and the burden should more fairly fall on those who make a lot more money, right? Who can afford it.

“Unfortunately, I think that there was a lot of misinformation out there, and the voters were confused and maybe somehow convinced that this is going to be a tax increase in the future,” she added. “Which, I kept trying to tell people, it’s not. There’s no appetite for tax increases. We already have the ability to raise the flat tax, but we haven’t wanted to do it unless we desperately had to.”

Now, however, that desperation stage is here, in that the state has to make up the $3.4 billion in revenue a graduated income tax was expected to generate, at the same time it’s dealing with billions in lost revenue in the pandemic and resistance in Congress to provide states and local governments with federal COVID-19 relief.

“There might be a way to do it where we somehow get agreement from our colleagues to raise the tax rate, but provide enough credits and incentives for those at the lower income levels to be able to avoid some of the increases,” Mah said, as has already been proposed in expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. “But I don’t know. I sincerely doubt whether Republicans are going to go for any of that. I don’t really see taxes as a bipartisan issue of agreement.”

According to Mah, however, that one main issue masks how much government business gets done with Democrats and Republicans working together. “The media likes to emphasize the partisan rancor,” she said, because conflict generates interest. “I will say that I think the general public’s idea of Springfield is much more partisan than it actually is in real life,” she added. “We act in a bipartisan manner all the time.

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“I will say that I think the general public’s idea of Springfield is much more partisan than it actually is in real life. We act in a bipartisan manner all the time.”

Rep. Theresa Mah (Zoom)

“There is a lot more bipartisanship in Springfield than we get credit for,” Mah said.

Embracing diversity has been a theme of her entire career. A native of San Francisco’s Chinatown, she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley before getting her doctorate in history at the University of Chicago — a suddenly hypercompetitive environment she described as “not a very collaborative experience,” combined with the “culture shock of moving to the Midwest from California.” She taught ethnic studies at Bowling Green University in Ohio, only to return to Chicago in search of a more diverse social environment. She did stints at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community. “I saw the power of organizing at work,” she said.

Mah worked on U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s first congressional campaign and went on to serve in Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration until he was voted out in 2014. She worked for U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s unsuccessful Chicago mayoral campaign in 2015. “I was pretty dejected in April that year,” Mah said. But the experiences served as a springboard for her own political career, as she ran for state representative the following year in a district that had unified much of Chicago’s Chinatown area after decades of seeing it divided up to dilute the Chinese American voting bloc, even as the district remained majority Hispanic. Running on the theme that “nobody will listen to us until we get a seat at the table,” as she told the Chicago Sun-Times, she was elected in 2016 as the first Asian American ever to serve in the General Assembly.

Now she’s taking on the rural-urban divide that typifies the split in Illinois politics, having joined in the Illinois Farm Bureau’s Adopt-a-Legislator program and been assigned McDonough County, including Macomb in western Illinois. Mah said the program has “done a lot to foster understanding and break down that divide,” adding, “We have more in common than our differences.”

It’s a two-way street, though, in recognizing both urban and rural problems and getting citizens in both areas to accept the attempts to address them by self-declared progressive politiicians, although Mah said the pandemic may be illustrative in that regard in demonstrating “the role government can play and needs to play.” She herself tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this week, but appeared fine on Thursday’s Zoom session as she continues to recover.

“I’m proud to be a progressive, and I hope we’re able to make a difference in people’s lives,” Mah said. “To me, being a progressive just means that you believe in fairness and opportunity, and you think that government can be a force for good in people’s lives, to increase equity and opportunity and to help people.”

The question is whether the General Assembly can agree on a package of cuts that aren’t too deep, taxes that aren’t too high, and exemptions and credits that provide relief to taxpayers who need it — put forth by progressives or not. With the fall veto session canceled over COVID-19 concerns in Springfield, however, that process — and the ultimate resolution — will have to wait until next year.

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November 12, 2020 at 02:01PM

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