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David Harris talks about what he’s learned so far

Wednesday, Jun 5, 2019

* Hannah Meisel interviewed Illinois Department of Revenue Director David Harris. Excerpt

Illinois Department of Revenue Director David Harris was one of the small group of Republican legislators who defied former Gov. Bruce Rauner in the summer of 2017 when he not only voted for a tax hike to end a two-year budget impasse, but also voted to overturn the Republican governor’s veto on the increase in income taxes. While he and many others announced their immediate retirements after that vote or their decisions to not seek re-election, Gov. JB Pritzker announced Harris would serve as the director IDOR soon after his November win over Rauner. The Daily Line spoke with Harris on Tuesday two days after the legislature wrapped up its business for the spring session, which resulted in the legalization of recreational marijuana, a $40.1 billion budget, a $44.5 billion six-year capital plan and a host of new taxes and fees in exchange for the creation of a bevy of new tax incentives for businesses. […]

Q: Do you think serving as the head of a state agency the last five months — do you think it’s changed your views on state government writ large? You come from a pretty moderate suburban Republican background and you were a longtime legislator. Do you think your views have changed on state government being truly in it?

A: My perspective has changed, yes. I’ll tell you how. As an example, I was on the [House] Revenue Committee and we’d always say, ‘What’s the revenue estimate on this?’ …We just kind of assumed the Department of Revenue had all those people over there working.

Now, we can punch a lot of numbers and we can punch a lot of numbers quickly. But I will tell you I have a research staff that used to be populated with eight people. It’s now populated with four people…if any one of those people gets in a car accident or gets sick and can’t come to work for two weeks, we have to scramble. Because of reductions — and these are all economists, trained economists, you try to hire an economist in state government at the level we’re going to pay them, it’s not easy.

Remember, the governor’s Fair Tax proposal, what does it mean if the [rates] are at such-and-such a level? We pegged it at a level where 97 percent of taxpayers in Illinois are not going to see any income tax increase, and indeed are going to see a benefit from those proposed levels.

But we’ve got to run through 6 million individual income tax filings to figure that out. It takes time. You just don’t push a button and that computer runs through six million computations. There has to be somebody there to do that.

So it’s absolutely increased my appreciation for what is done specifically at the Department of Revenue, and increased my appreciation for folks who do things like that…I’ve gained a greater appreciation for what it takes to actually run state government, whereas being in the legislature, you can sit there and criticize somebody who didn’t do something or say, ‘This just isn’t working as efficiently as it should and I’ll just pass a bill.’ You pass a bill, that means a lot of things have to happen to make sure that bill works the way you intended it to work.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

22 Comments »
  1. - Linus - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 11:08 am:

    I always appreciated David Harris’ thoughtfulness in the legislature, and remain thankful that he’s the guy steering Revenue.


  2. - Reality Check - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 11:15 am:

    A-MEN.

    Now extrapolate that out from eight economists in one office of the Department of Revenue to 2,000 people caring for veterans, 4,000 working in child protection, 10,000-plus caring for people with mental illnesses or disabilities and a similar number working in state prisons.

    These are tough, critical, too often thankless jobs in agencies that as this joint’s proprietor often points out, have been hollowed out for decades.


  3. - Cheryl44 - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 11:19 am:

    Imagine that. Not having enough qualified people in a department makes it hard to get things done.

    Which is not a reflection on Harris. There’s really no way to tell exactly how much damage Rauner and his crew inflicted on state government and how long it’s going to take to clean it up.


  4. - Try-4-Truth - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 11:21 am:

    The political-administrative dichotomy….

    President Wilson would be proud…


  5. - Earnest - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 11:25 am:

    >I’ve gained a greater appreciation for what it takes to actually run state government

    Hopefully we finally have a governor who’s up for the basic, hard, unsung and unglamorous work of the basic functions of state government. There are a lot of great state employees who have struggled under poor leadership, and that’s a separate issue from the hollowing out of state government we have discussed here numerous times.

    There are also a lot of things that could be done better and more cost-effectively by state employees. I’d much rather have more Tier II state employees with very cost-effective pensions paying into the retirement system, paying Illinois income and property taxes and supporting our local communities than out-of-state corporations booking nice profits. Particularly in IT there’s room to partner with our colleges, meet our own needs and incubate entrepreneurship.


  6. - wordslinger - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 11:27 am:

    Great pick by Pritzker. A true fiscal conservative, not one of those “spend and borrow” or “don’t pay your bills” phonies.


  7. - Proud Sucker - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 11:30 am:

    Wow. I hope more policy makers read and comprehend this. Those of us who do the work have been doing more with less, working smarter not harder, etc. since the eighties. But, there is usually a minimum number of competent civil servants needed to support the policy makers. Director Harris just told us that four economists is half of his Department’s need. I wonder if his fellow GOPers will believe him.


  8. - State JD - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 11:30 am:

    Great points from the former legislator. Now let’s see if anyone listens to him. Budget slashers love to cry about overpaid state employees, but the reality is that outside of a couple specific fields, pretty much any skilled position (economist, accountant, lawyer, scientist, engineer, IT, medical, etc) will always get paid more in the private sector.

    Trying to hire people with specialized knowledge (or even just marketable general knowledge, like a decent paralegal) can be extremely difficult for the state, given the job market and the onerous procedural safeguards that have been developed through CMS because of prior bad actors.


  9. - Professor - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 11:30 am:

    I first met David Harris about 30 plus years ago. He is a class act. Excellent appointment!


  10. - Oswego Willy - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 11:31 am:

    Mr. Harris has redeemed himself from the Raunerite Times, and by helping this state in his new role he’s walking the walk to help Illinois move forward and away from Raunerism.

    Thank you, Mr. Harris.


  11. - Perrid - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 11:41 am:

    “You just don’t push a button and that computer runs through six million computations. There has to be somebody there to do that.”

    I’m sure it’s not an automatic process, someone needs to program it and look at the data and clean it and interpret it, all that, but he makes it seem like these 4 dudes are going through 6 million tax returns by hand. Which I hope is not true.


  12. - What about.... - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 11:50 am:

    “You pass a bill, that means a lot of things have to happen to make sure that bill works the way you intended it to work.”

    This is very true for state agencies, but applies to more than just state government. I think many times legislators have no idea the amount of work that must be done in the private sector or municipal sector, largely unfunded, to be compliant with the many, many bills passed each year. When I hear on the floor “this is simply a bill that will require…” I think to myself, that’ll be 6 months of work to “simply comply.” Please share more of this newfound perspective with your colleagues, Director Harris.


  13. - Montrose - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 11:58 am:

    I love me some David Harris. He was the perfect choice for that role. His willingness to learn and change his mind based on new information always made him an excellent legislator and is serving him well in this new gig.


  14. - DarkDante - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 12:00 pm:

    I’m responsible for tuition revenue forecasting at UIC, and I appreciate this interview. Until you get your hands messy in the data, you can’t imagine how long it takes and how arduous it can be to turn rows of data into digestible financial models to inform decision makers. I personally track over 3600 variables!


  15. - RNUG - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 12:05 pm:

    == the hollowing out of state government began long before Rauner took office. ==

    Started with 11,000 leaving in the 2002 ERi and a few thousand more in 2004. Then went downhill from there.


  16. - RNUG - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 12:06 pm:

    Hopefully, the GA will take his words to heart.


  17. - Greenpeace - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 12:14 pm:

    My only beef with David Harris is that he’s trying to take credit for the marketplace fairness proposal that was clearly brought to the table by IRMA. The Department of Revenue opposed a large part of it, up to and through committee, when Director Harris was communicating their concern with lawmakers.

    Give credit where credit is due…


  18. - Oswego Willy - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 12:16 pm:

    ===While the budget impasse definitely made matters worse, the hollowing out of state government began long before Rauner took office.===

    “While the budget impasse definitely made matters worse”

    An entire General Assembly had no signed budget.

    Your “forgiveness” of Rauner seems to ignore the purposeful destruction of not having a budget for a whole general assembly is quite a leap from just cutting things in passed budgets.

    “…the hollowing out of state government began long before Rauner took office.”

    … and yet, Diana Rauner’s Ounce of Prevention sued Bruce Rauner’s Administration for payment.

    Diana Rauner called these things “business decisions” and didn’t chide Bruce’s Administration. That hadn’t been seen before

    Ironically, it was the Pritzker Family, including JB Pritzker, the person who would then embarrass Bruce and Diana by defeating Bruce by 16 points, that bailed out Diana’s Ounce of Prevention.

    But, please, go on and say it was bad before the RaunerS, but…

    The RaunerS hurt Illinois in ways not seen, and hopefully won’t be seen again.


  19. - Candy Dogood - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 12:51 pm:

    You guys want to talk about gender bias in our society?

    David Harris spent years in elected office before being appointed to head an agency and he just now is figuring this out and instead of being ridiculed he’s being praised?

    I can’t imagine similar remarks by the head of a state agency that’s a woman being received in the same light.

    ===You just don’t push a button and that computer runs through six million computations. There has to be somebody there to do that. ===

    That kind of completely naive attitude about how research works is ridiculous for an adult that served in a legislature for any length of time and we should all take a moment to wonder if these are the kind of remarks made by a person fit for the position he now has.

    He didn’t even take ownership in his tenure in the legislature being while government was hallowed out.


  20. - Shevek - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 2:54 pm:

    What a surprise, a Republican had no appreciation for what state employees do until he needed them. Glad he came to the realization (in the context of DOR only apparently). But how about he spread the word to his fellow Republicans that the government needs competent employees to properly function? I don’t quite get all the ‘at a boys coming from this group. I think the word I’m looking for is “Duh”.


  21. - Hickory - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 3:54 pm:

    What I got out of the interview is Revenue needs software upgrades.


  22. - Moose - Wednesday, Jun 5, 19 @ 7:51 pm:

    ===Started with 11,000 leaving in the 2002 ERi and a few thousand more in 2004. Then went downhill from there.===

    Agree 100%. I worked at Revenue for almost all of my career (36 yrs). Many lifer Revenuers retired with ERI and many followed thereafter and in the bad Blago years. These people were not come & go politicians and knew IL state tax laws inside out. The honest cooperative effort between the legislature and Revenue to accurately estimate the impact of potential tax legislation isn’t what it used to be. There are a lot of good people now at Revenue trying; but the institutional knowledge loss can’t be understated.


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