Rich Miller posted an entry on Capitol Fax entitled “Daley whines about Emanuel, but poll results indicate he’s wrong.” However, in highlighting the results of said poll, it turns out the poll, or at least the assumptions made by those conducting the poll, are even more wrong than Daley.
According to Miller, the poll, which was commissioned by the left-leaning Illinois Economic Policy Institute (IEPI) and conducted by Anzalone Liszt, “was ostensibly designed to test the theory propagated by the Chicago media that a ‘tax revolt’ is brewing in the city.” The pollsters claim no such revolt is occurring. However, numbers from the Census Bureau suggest otherwise. According to the Chicago Tribune:
“Chicago, the only city among the nation’s 20 largest to see population loss in 2015, could be overtaken in a decade by Houston as the third-most-populous city if the trend continues, experts said. The city of Chicago lost about 2,890 residents between 2014 and 2015, bringing the city’s population down to 2,720,546, according to newly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau.”
When surveyed by the Tribune, former residents listed “high taxes” as among the primary reasons why they chose to live elsewhere. Call this what you will—relocation, population decline, a tax revolt, etc. But unless the Census Bureau is in on some larger conspiracy, then it does appear people are leaving the city in droves, many because of ever-increasing taxes.
In spite of this, the poll allegedly demonstrates that voters are less concerned about taxes than they are about other issues:
“Taxes are not a top of mind issue. Voters are more concerned about education (35%) as well as crime and police issues (34%) than they are about taxes (15%). Even the tiny 14% of Chicago voters who identify as Republicans list taxes as their #3 issue.”
People are certainly concerned about education and crime and police issues, as well they should be. These issues have also dominated the headlines in the past several weeks, bringing them to the forefront of the public’s consciousness. But for the people living in Lincoln Park, River North, the Gold Coast and other areas that saw outrageous property tax bills, taxes is probably one of their primary concerns, if not the primary concern.
These are the people—those who are seeing triple-digit percentage increases in their property taxes—who are likely more concerned about skyrocketing taxes. These are also the people who can easily pick up and leave the city, thereby perpetuating the “tax revolt.” Even residents who didn’t see exorbitant property tax hikes may start to feel the pinch over time as taxes continue to increase. As a result, the issue of taxes may climb on their list of concerns.
But the IEPI poll does not stop there. Perhaps the most misleading results are these:
“Voters are willing to pay higher taxes for more services. Voters would rather pay higher taxes for more services (29%) than lower taxes for fewer services (20%), though a plurality would prefer the current level of both (44%). A majority are also willing to pay more in taxes for the following specific services:
More police officers on foot and vehicle patrol 66% [willing] / 32% [unwilling]
More funding for school construction, teachers, and science and technology improvements 64% / 33%Free universal Pre-K classes for all four year olds in
Chicago 57% / 41%More neighborhood services like rat abatement, tree trimming, and road paving 56% / 41%”
In theory, voters may be willing to pay more taxes for more services. However, this rarely plays out well in reality. One need only look at Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to see why. Yesterday the Chicago Board of Education approved CPS’s 2016/2017 budget and, in doing so, saddled taxpayers with three property tax increases.
CPS’s new budget will do little to chip away at the larger problems of its ongoing budget deficit and underfunded pension system. Worse still, taxpayers are unlikely to see significant change in the district’s perpetual performance issues, in spite of the massive amounts of money ($5.4 billion) being thrown at CPS. Taxpayers may be willing to pay more for more services, but in the case of CPS, they are paying more for nothing great in return.
The IEPI poll results are a classic example of the problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. A majority of voters say they’re willing to pay more in taxes if, for example, they see more police patrols. All city taxpayers would be hit with a tax increase for this service, but relatively few neighborhoods would likely see more patrols because there are only so many police officers in Chicago. Taxpayers’ answers to the poll questions posed above may well change if they are 1) told they’re unlikely to see the increases in service they expect given the money they’re paying, 2) presented with an estimated cost per taxpayer projected out over time, which will continue to grow as services grow more expensive, and 3) reminded that throwing money at a problem doesn’t often solve much, especially when the government is involved.
Even if we assume this poll is accurate and representative of the city as a whole (which is a dubious assumption, as no demographic information was given for the 600 Chicagoans polled), what poll respondents were not asked about and what many may not realize is just how much of their taxes have gone and will continue to go not toward services but toward funding pensions.
The people of Chicago will continue to receive ever-increasing tax bills, but they are unlikely to see an increase in services. In fact, they might see a decrease. Chicago is in a precarious financial position, and it may only get worse. The Governor’s office issued a warning that the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS), Illinois’ largest public pension fund, may lower its expected rate of return, thereby increasing the state’s annual pension payment. According to Rauner’s senior advisor for revenue and pensions Michael Mahoney, if this happens:
“Taxpayers will be automatically and immediately on the hook for potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in higher taxes or reduced services.”
Information like this was conveniently omitted from the poll questions. Miller and the folks at IEPI may be trying to dispel the notion that people are leaving the city because of skyrocketing taxes and decades of poor fiscal management. But actions speak louder than poll results, and time will tell of Chicago will continue to see a mass exodus of taxpayers.