Op-Ed: Pension reform is more popular than Pritzker, and other Illinois polling data that may surprise you

There’s an old saying that political science isn’t really science at all. It’s an art.

The same goes for political polling. Modern pollsters use sophisticated modeling and methods to get at the truth, but it can be hard to separate the signal from the noise.

New polling data in Illinois paint an interesting picture of the state, if you know where to look.

Three points stick out in recently released numbers:

First, J.B. Pritzker is not a popular governor. Second, pollsters need to get real about the “fair tax” fantasy. And third, pension reform draws a diverse base of support, except at the Statehouse.

The Pritzker styled by Springfield insiders and some media commentators is the billionaire governor who gets things done. But polling shows he is fairly divisive – underwater with independent voters – and has become more disliked throughout his term.

Polling from FAKO Research & Insights conducted in February and released this week shows 39% of Illinoisans rate Pritzker positively (14% very positive) while 36% rate him negatively (25% very negative). Another 19% of respondents were neutral on the governor. The poll’s margin of error was just under 4%.

Here’s the regional breakdown for Pritzker:

Chicago: 58% total positive (22% very positive)Suburban Cook County: 46% total positive (11% very positive). Northern Illinois: 47% total negative (34% very negative)Southern Illinois: 54% total negative (43% very negative)

Illinois’ independent voters are not pleased with the governor, with only 29% reporting positive feelings compared with 39% negative.

The FAKO numbers line up with polling from Morning Consult, whose 50-state polling operation pegged Pritzker as one of the most unpopular governors in the nation last fall. Pritzker’s approval rating started at 40% at the beginning of 2019 and ticked up to 43% by the end of the year, according to Morning Consult. But his disapproval shot up from 29% to 41% at the same time. He started the year neutral among independents but ended it 9 percentage points in the red.

Pritzker has signed many big bills into law: a big capital plan with big tax hikes, a big gambling expansion, a big statewide minimum wage hike, marijuana legalization and a graduated income tax constitutional amendment that would give an additional $3.7 billion to state and local governments if voters approve it in November, to name a few.

But it’s not clear he signed the right bills.

The governor has branded his constitutional amendment the “fair tax”, and a new poll on that tax spurred headlines touting major support, with nearly two-thirds of Illinoisans approving of it, including 55% of downstate voters.

The problem with the poll was that it asked about the progressive income tax as its proponents want to see it. Not as it is.

The Paul Simon Institute for Public Policy at Southern Illinois University worded the question this way: “Would you favor or oppose a proposal to change the Illinois Constitution to allow a graduated income tax – that is, tax rates would be lower for lower-income taxpayers and higher for upper-income taxpayers?” The same question saw slightly higher support in 2019.

Lawmakers have not yet drafted the wording of the ballot question that will ultimately face voters. But it’s not hard to see how the wording of this poll question might tip the scales. Just as the amendment “allow[s] a graduated income tax,” it also removes the state’s 50-year-old flat tax protection. And while the amendment might allow for lower rates on lower income taxpayers and higher rates on higher income taxpayers, it also allows for the opposite, as well as higher rates on everyone, should lawmakers decide.

When voters know even the most basic information about the progressive tax, their opinion can change drastically. For example, in one Democratic-held House district polled last year, the progressive tax went from a win to a statistical tie simply by noting it was Pritzker’s proposal. This swung independent voters from support to opposition.

The more surprising finding from the SIU poll was on pension reform, which is often dismissed in Springfield as not politically possible.

Researchers from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute asked 1,000 Illinoisans if they support “an amendment to the Illinois Constitution that would preserve state retirement benefits already earned by public employees, but would also allow a reduction in the benefits earned in the future, whether by current or future employees.”

The poll found 51% of Illinoisans said they would support the amendment while 37% were opposed. Those numbers are far better than the governor’s.

In Chicago, 55% of residents believe the amendment is a good idea. Democrats (+7 percentage points), Independents (+7), Hispanic voters (+12), government and nonprofit employees (+4), people aged 66 and older (+22), and even union members (+4) all back the amendment.

When it comes to Pritzker, the progressive income tax and pensions, state lawmakers judging the political winds might want to take a second look around.

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