State Policy Network
How Illinois Policy and coalition partners saved Illinois residents from harmful ‘fair tax’

In 2020, powerful interest groups in Illinois placed a progressive tax amendment on the November ballot. The measure would have hiked income taxes by $3.4 billion per year and cost the state 54,000 jobs.

The Illinois Policy Institute and its coalition partners launched a campaign to persuade voters across the political spectrum to vote no—and succeeded.

The campaign not only saved millions of Illinois residents from a devastating tax—it also boosted the organization’s brand as the strongest voice for taxpayers in the state. Let’s take a look at Illinois Policy’s campaign and keys to their success.

SPN: What was your project?

Illinois Policy: In November 2020, Illinois voters were asked to weigh in on changing Illinois’ flat income tax to a progressive income tax. In the lead up to the election, the Illinois Policy Institute positioned itself as an educational resource, informing the media and the public on the dangers of a progressive income tax. In addition, its partner groups worked to drive voters to vote no. 

Illinois’ constitution was written in a way that guarantees a flat income tax structure and the November 3, 2020, ballot proposed a constitutional amendment that would remove this provision. This amendment was a high priority initiative from the Illinois governor who personally spent $56 million promoting the policy that was sold as a “fair tax” on the rich.

Corresponding legislation enacted rates that claimed would allow 97 percent of Illinoisans to see their current tax rate of 4.95 percent stay the same or slightly decrease. Then, large tax increases were given for individuals earning over $250,000, $350,000 and $750,000.

From the beginning, Illinois Policy Institute released reports, op-eds, and press releases sharing why the ‘fair tax’ promise was a farse, with lawmakers offering a bait and switch— likely lowering the income thresholds in future years when revenue ran short.

As the election neared and polling showed a fair split between both outcomes, the Illinois Policy Institute decided to launch a campaign to help steer the results of the election once and for all—boosting its brand image in the process.

The idea came from the fear that a graduated rate structure could make Illinois more likely to adopt a retirement tax. Illinois is one of only a few states that does not tax retirement income such as 401(k)s, pensions, or IRAs, a policy that retains retirement-age adults in the state. However, if the state allowed progressive income taxes, Illinois’ corrupt politicians and broke budget meant it could be more likely to enact one, creating segmented retirement taxes; for example, only targeting those earning more than $100,000. The Institute identified that all 32 states with progressive income taxes also tax retirement income.

On October 5, 2020, one month before the election, Illinois Policy Institute joined with three retirees and filed a lawsuit against the state of Illinois, questioning the legality of the ballot language in an equal election.

To optimize the message, the Institute shared the lawsuit as an exclusive to a respected National Public Radio reporter. She interviewed an Institute spokesperson, published her story in tandem with the filing of the lawsuit, and the story was subsequently picked up in several top tier outlets across the state, including the Politico Playbook daily newsletter and the CapitolFax blog consumed by political insiders. A press release announcing the lawsuit was also sent that day with a 33 percent open rate. In addition, the organization’s website promoted an article on the lawsuit, along with a feature story on one of the retirees. These articles were then shared on the Institute’s Facebook and Twitter profiles.

Ultimately, every single Chicago news station and both daily newspapers covered the lawsuit, elevating the threat of a retirement tax in Illinois to millions of viewers and consumers. An op-ed by President Matt Paprocki was pitched and quickly published in the Chicago Sun-Times on October 23 reiterated the retirement tax message one final time.

Business and political columnist Greg Hinz for Crain’s Chicago Business wrote, “Is Pritzker’s graduated tax plan in trouble? After a long stretch in which Pritzker had appeared to hold the upper hand on the tax amendment, its outcome now may be in jeopardy.”

In total, Illinois Policy Institute was mentioned 450 times in media about the lawsuit. That led to the Institute collecting more than 600 neutral-to-positive media mentions in October 2020.

Ultimately, at the November 3, 2020 general election, Illinois voters soundly voted down the ‘fair tax,’ with only 45 percent of Illinoisans voting yes, far short of the 60 percent needed. The serious and sudden downfall of the progressive tax shows that the retirement tax campaign was a resounding success.

SPN: How was it intended to boost your brand?

Illinois Policy: In an expensive fight, Illinois Policy Institute needed to differentiate itself for donors and media and needed to convert voters more effectively. The retirement tax campaign allowed the Institute to do this as it served as a champion for the marginalized and fought for the elderly as co-plaintiffs. In addition, it positioned itself squarely against the status quo in Springfield by offering inside information to the public about the true intentions of the policy.

The campaign allowed the Institute to shine as grass roots messengers, instead of attempting to win a costly battle over airwaves and commercials.

In addition, we were able to do so in a way that was more effective than opponents who spent significantly more.

SPN: How did the campaign actually increase awareness?

Illinois Policy: In March 2020, a poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute of Southern Illinois University found 65% of likely Illinois voters supported a progressive tax, a number that would have allowed for its passage.

From July to October 2020, during the Institute’s retirement tax campaign, awareness among Illinoisans over age 55 of the fact that the progressive tax opened the door to a retirement tax went up 30 percentage points. At the same time, their opposition to the progressive tax went up 18 points.

From October 1 to November 3, 2020, Illinois Policy’s content reached 6.8 million people and earned 2.8 million engagements on social media.

A final op-ed published by President Matt Paprocki in the Chicago Tribune pointed out that the lawsuit allowed voters to achieve information parity with political leaders in Springfield.

In addition, 13 newspaper editorial boards around Illinois and the nation issued opinions against the tax, including Chicago Tribune, Daily Herald, Crain’s, and Shaw Media. Notably, Crain’s, Shaw newspapers and the Daily Herald endorsed Gov. Pritzker in the 2018 gubernatorial election, showing a changed opinion. A Wall Street Journal editorial cited Illinois Policy Institute messaging and material when rejecting the tax. In comparison, only four newspapers endorsed the tax.

Among early voters, 22% said the primary reason they voted no was because the progressive tax made a retirement tax more likely – meaning the retirement tax message alone may have accounted for as many as 625,000 ‘no’ votes.

SPN: How did audience engage before, how do they now?

Illinois Policy: Most notably, during the progressive tax fight, our email subscriber list grew from 600,000 subscribers to 1.5 million, about 25% of the 5.5 million Illinoisans expected to vote on the ballot question.

SPN: What would you do differently or the same?

Illinois Policy: The Illinois Policy Institute was criticized for levying this lawsuit at the 11th hour, with one month to go until the election. We may have seen more fruitful lawsuit results and actually changed the amendment language if we’d filed it sooner. However, the goal to inform the public was accomplished. A positive of the last-minute nature of the lawsuit was that it put the narrative squarely in our court and didn’t give the opposition enough time to respond.

SPN: How would you define your brand before the campaign and now?

Illinois Policy: The brand of the Illinois Policy Institute is the strongest voice for taxpayers in the state. It has a mission to serve the underdogs by bringing less power to government and more power to the people.

Prior to the campaign, the organization’s audience of readers respected our work and valued the opinion of our experts. That only became more-so true when we brought these issues of fair elections to the forefront of the conversation.

By winning the ballot amendment and doing so in a manner that took down big names—and big spending—we increased our brand credibility and can now be perceived as serious players in the policy space. We affect legislative outcomes.

For their success in stopping the devastating ‘fair tax,’ Illinois Policy Institute is a finalist in State Policy Network’s Bob Williams Awards for Outstanding Policy Achievement, in the Best Issue Campaign category. Illinois Policy is also a finalist in State Policy Network’s Communications Excellence Awards, in the Bold Brand Boost Award category.

States: Illinois
Organization: State Policy Network