Jim Dey | Frerichs trying to talk way out of remarks on taxing pensions

Politicians’ misstatements usually dissolve in thin air. But when they accidentally tell the truth — it’s called a gaffe — Lord only knows when they’ll stop hearing about it.

Two years after state Treasurer Michael Frerichs of Champaign accidentally told the truth about the merits of taxing retiree pensions that are now exempt from taxation, his comments remain in the news.

It’s ironic in a sense. The result of his truth-telling then is that he’s engaging in “not truth-telling” now to avoid political responsibility for his initial comments.

It’s all part of the political game whereby rival candidates — in this case, GOP state Rep. Tom Demmer and Democrat Frerichs — seek hot-button issues to boost their campaigns for treasurer.

Republicans have focused on Frerichs’ fall 2020 remarks before the Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce on the proposed progressive-income-tax amendment.

Discussing the benefits of a progressive income tax — escalating tax rates imposed on rising levels and types of income — Frerichs said a progressive system would give legislators flexibility to tax retirees’ pensions.

“I think that’s something worth discussing,” he said.

Frerichs has never been shy about his support for a progressive income tax amendment. But the political class went ape — Republicans delighted, Democrats aghast — when he publicly raised the possibility of taxing pension income.

Capitol Fax headlined the story, “Frerichs steps on third rail.”

Some speculated his comments on taxing retiree pensions might doom Pritzker’s progressive tax amendment, and a sheepish Frerichs later issued a statement he said was necessary to “address misinformation.” In it, he expressed opposition to “creating a retirement tax in Illinois, along with the General Assembly and Governor.”

Pritzker’s amendment went down in flames in November 2020.

Two years later, Frerichs is still trying to evade the consequences of his suggestion that retirement income should be taxed. He’s variously denounced claims that he did as either inaccurate or taken out of context.

He recently did it again when Demmer and other Republicans campaigning in Rock Island warned voters that re-electing Frerichs threatens seniors’ pensions.

In its news story, The Quad City Times reported that “the (GOP) candidates said Treasurer Michael Frerichs suggested the state might tax retirement income, such as pensions and 401(k)s, when Democrats were rallying support for a graduated income tax.”

The charge prompted the Frerichs campaign to engage in some rhetorical bobbing and weaving.

“Frerichs’ campaign on Thursday disputed suggesting a retirement tax was ever on the table, adding that the state treasurer does not have the authority to implement a tax on retirement income,” The Times reported.

Note the intentionally evasive words. A pension tax was never on legislators’ table because the progressive income tax on which it relied was defeated. That doesn’t mean Frerichs never suggested it should be.

Further, Frerichs never claimed authority to unilaterally impose such a tax. He said legislators should consider it.

Here’s how The (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald reported what Frerichs now says he never said.

“Frerichs added an argument for the progressive income tax is taxing retirement income of those who can afford it. He said he knows people who receive six-figure yearly pensions and do not pay (state) income tax, but the current system doesn’t differentiate between them and retirees who barely get by on their savings and pensions.

“‘One thing a progressive income tax would do is make clear you can have graduated rates when you are taxing retirement income,’ he said. ‘And I think that’s something worth discussing.’”

It was worth discussion two years ago. It’s worthy of non-denial denials now.

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Read the full story here.