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On September 26, the Office of the Inspector General for the City of Chicago released its annual budget options report  to guide city officials as they debate how to close the city’s $1.2 billion budget deficit.  The recommendations are extensive (this year’s report is 136 pages long, more than 80 pages longer than last year’s), and contain some suggestions sure to be controversial, including instituting a city income tax and a commuter tax.

One promising recommendation, that the city broaden its sales tax base, is similar to a plan Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed earlier this year.  It was quickly dubbed the “Rahm Tax.”  The mayor’s plan would have imposed a sales tax on those services that he deemed “luxury items,” including limo services, tanning parlors and pet grooming.

The current sales tax base in Illinois is strikingly narrow.  A report released by the Federation of Tax Administrators shows Illinois taxing only seventeen out of 168 possible services; only Oregon, New Hampshire, Alaska, and Colorado tax fewer services. 

The obvious advantage to multiplying the goods and services subject to tax is that a state (or city) can actually lower its overall sales tax rate and still generate the same amount of revenue.  Those items purchased by all of us, at fairly consistent rates (think school supplies, shampoo, and shoes), are already subject to a sales tax.  Meanwhile, services – from limo rides to gym memberships to interior design – are not.  So while taxpayers might initially balk at the idea of “new taxes,” everyone is better off if the tax burden is more broadly shared

At 9.75 percent, Chicago’s sales tax rate is one of the highest in the country, so extending it to services is not insignificant. However, the prospect of more equity in the system, coupled with the potential to eventually reduce the overall rate, should actually make this an appealing option for Windy City residents.

Photo of Rahm Emanuel via Adam Fagen Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0