On a Saturday in June, Jim Tobin breezed to the door of House Speaker Michael J. Madigan’s home in Chicago, rang the bell and waited. The mission was simple. The state’s most famous tax protester confronts public enemy No. 1 for fighting against the Tax Accountability Amendment. The amendment, Tobin’s latest project, was a citizens’ initiative that would let voters decide if a super majority should be required for the Illinois General Assembly to raise taxes.
“Here’s what I have to say to Mr. Madigan: Stop the politics of Red Square before glasnost. Let the people vote, Michael Madigan. Let the people vote!” Tobin said. The response was predictable. No one opened the door for the pesky little man whose dark hair is thinning and beard is graying after 17 years of leading tax revolts.
No matter. A news photographer snapped a picture. The television stations did interviews. “I didn’t really want to confront him today,” Tobin confided later. And why should he? The mad-as-hell approach to fighting taxes is grabbing attention. At age 44, Jim Tobin may be making his mark.
Over the years, Tobin has stumped through so many Illinois cities that one would think he’s a candidate for statewide office. He’s pitched referendums that roll back property tax rates for about 15 Illinois communities. Of the 117 local property tax increase referendums he’s fought, only 11 survived. “What Jim Tobin represents is that frustration valve that average citizens need to feel,” said Douglas Whitley. president of the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois. “There’s pleasure in being the burr under the saddle.”
Jim Tobin for president? For state senator? For park board president? Forget it. The unmarried computer software salesman who teaches economics at Elmhurst College doesn’t want to be reduced to a “cog in the wheel” of government. Tobin envisions himself as a modern-day Patrick Henry beating back “tax-eating” politicians with the same fervor that inspired American colonists to topple the “tax-eating” British beginning in 1776. He dreams of becoming the Illinois version of Howard Jarvis, late co-sponsor of California’s Proposition 13. Approved by voters in 1978, the citizens’ initiative rolled back property taxes in California about 60 percent.
Advocating privatization of public schools and a 50 percent cut in all taxes, Jim Tobin wants to be a tax savior. The only thing he doesn’t want along the way is to be confused with Patrick Quinn. Political outsiders, tax reformers, cheerleaders for voters’ initiatives � on the surface it appears Tobin and Quinn are cut from the same cloth.
The truth is Tobin thinks Quinn’s a “tax shifter” who will lower homeowners’ property taxes for votes and then raise taxes of farmers and businesses to make up for it. “It would mean higher prices in goods and services, food and clothing. Either he’s an economic illiterate or he’s lying to the people,” Tobin charged.
Quinn’s assessment of Tobin isn’t much better: “He’s a hard guy to work with. He’s got extreme views. He hates government and public service. He basically believes in a system where firms and corporations pay no taxes.”
Since the Illinois Constitution restricts the scope of citizens’ initiatives, neither Quinn nor Tobin can promote the type of “anything-goes” propositions allowed in California. There is one way that voters’ initiatives can fly in Illinois: That’s by changing the structure and procedure of the General Assembly. Quinn did it in 1980 with a citizens’ initiative that cut the size of the Illinois House by a third. Tobin wanted to achieve a similar feat in 1990 with Tax Accountability, but on August 22 the Illinois Supreme Court ruled the initiative beyond the scope of the state Constitution. The amendment proposed to require all state tax increases be approved by a 60 percent vote in the General Assembly, the public get two weeks’ notice of tax increase proposals and state legislators sit fora limit of four years on revenue committees.
Tobin asked Quinn last year to join Tax Accountability. Quinn refused, believing the amendment unconstitutional and useless in reducing property taxes (they are not taxes of state government). Now Quinn’s running for state treasurer, but don’t expect Tobin to endorse him. “He’s a hypocrite. Almost everything he’s accused these political bureaucrats of doing, he’s done himself,” Tobin said. Tobin doesn’t like bureaucrats because he once was one, too.
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As an examiner for the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago beginning in 1971, Tobin says he put up with government waste, brought corruption to the attention of supervisors and grew stagnant writing government reports. He questioned why one-third of his pay check went for taxes. He believed the Fed caused inflation. Tn 1980, he left. “I got fed up with the Fed,” says the man who matches a slogan with nearly every complaint on government he has.
When Tobin founded National Taxpayers United of Illinois in 1976, his parents were among the first members. As secretary, his mother stuffed envelopes and took telephone messages. “She worked tirelessly for her family and the taxpayers,” wrote Tobin in his newsletter, TAXNEWS, last winter shortly after she died. Even without her, Tobin and his father continued fighting � among other things, the Illinois sales tax imposed on his mother’s coffin, Tobin wrote.
His group, affiliated with the National Taxpayers Union in Washington, D.C., today boasts 5,000 members. The group has been chief financial sponsor, contributing $30,000 in seed money to Tax Accountability.
Prominent people who have belonged to National Taxpayers United of Illinois include Robert Marshall, the Libertarian who finished last in the March GOP primary for governer; former Roselle Village Trustee Gerry Walsh, elected as a Libertarian; and unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate Judy Koehler, a very conservative Republican. While Tobin subscribes to the Libertarian philosophy that less is best when talking about taxes and government, he insists he’s neither a Libertarian nor a Republican nor a Democrat. Tax Accountability has attracted liberals, right-wingers, anti-abortionists, flag wavers and senior citizens, but Tobin himself steers clear of labels. Fighting taxes is his only cause.
|No matter the outcome of Tax Accountability, Jim Tobin can’t lose and he knows it
He’s the guy who convinced at least 2,000 people not to pay Cook County property taxes in 1977. “He was complaining to everyone that would listen,” recalls Robert Hurka, Tobin’s lifelong friend. As kids, the two shot BB guns at hubcaps, took a car for a joy ride and had all the parties at Tobin’s west side Chicago home. “He talked to me about the tax strike a couple of times,” Hurka said. “I didn’t listen. I didn’t want to take the chance.”
While critics charge the tax strike was bad advice, putting those who participated at risk of losing their homes, Tobin says it did some good. The movement spurred Cook County to roll back taxes about 6 percent, Tobin believes. And Tobin didn’t lose the home his grandfather and father owned before him. He ended his strike in 1979 by paying his overdue taxes with interest penalties tacked on. Tobin remained in the Austin neighborhood after it began deteriorating. He was captain of the block, helped get sidewalks fixed and took his turn patrolling neighborhood alleys, neighbor Geraldine Kelly said.
“I see the government as responsible for destroying my neighborhood,” said Tobin, blaming unkempt government-subsidized homes that sprang up in his neighborhood for fueling the decay. In 1982, Tobin moved to west suburban Berwyn. By then, his tax striking days were a memory. The tax fight using local voter referendums had begun.
One of Tobin’s nastiest confrontations occurred in Madison County in 1980. Tobin and former anti-tax partner Richard Suter, later linked to securities fraud, refused at a taxpayers’ meeting to let Madison County officials speak against three property tax rollback proposals. Former Madison County Highway Supt. Les Miller called Tobin “a Hitler.” Tobin cried “The tax thieves are leaving!” as the public officials stormed out. It was enough to goad retired Illinois Appellate Court Justice George Moran into shaking a finger in Tobin’s face. “I thought we were going over there to hear a democratic debate. It was nothing like that,” Moran recalled.
Tobin still believes in Tax Accountability. He wants to stop a repeat of the so-called “tax massacre” in 1989 when $1.2 billion in tax increases passed the General Assembly in its final hours. He hoped the proposed amendment would be on the November ballot and serve as a lightning rod for other voters’ initiatives.
Up to 150 petition circulators were hired to collect signatures at up to 60 cents a name for Tax Accountability. Tobin says circulators were trained to ask voters to sign a petition that could make it tougher to raise taxes. His critics charge they misled voters into believing it could cut taxes. “On Earth Day in Lincoln Park, they were wandering around saying ‘Here’s a way to cut your taxes.’ It’s very similar to the way the LaRouchies used to solicit people at the airport,” charged Steve Brown, a spokesman for Madigan. LaRouchies are a painful memory for Illinois Democrats, who were caught by surprise in 1986 when followers of super conservative Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. won Democratic primaries for lieutenant governor and secretary of state.
The Chicago Bar Association won in court with a unanimous decision by all seven justices to keep Tax Accountability off the ballot. Critics had said it was unconstitutional because it limits the power of the state legislature to raise revenue. Other charged it could mean higher local property taxes; If the General Assembly’s efforts to raise taxes for education and other services were stymed by a 60 percent vote rquirement, local governments would be forced to make up the balance with property taxes.
Even with Tax Accountability off the ballot, Jim Tobin can’t lose and he knows it. He’s courting angry taxpayers. “It’s a no-lose battle for me,” he crows. “If they raise taxes, I’ll just get more members. We’ll beat them eventually. Tenacity is my middle name.”
Laura Janota is a reporter for the Daily Herald, who works in its Chicago bureau.
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