U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., is among more than 27,000 homeowners in Cook County, Illinois, who don’t pay a cent in property tax, according to a report.
The reason: Duckworth and the other zero-tax homeowners take advantage of various exemptions that the Illinois General Assembly has made possible over the years, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
But critics say all those exemptions make too many people eligible to pay no tax, thus increasing the burden on those who fail to qualify for breaks, according to the report.
"What we have done is to create all special sorts of categories – veterans, disabled people, senior citizens – and all of those exemptions administered by the county basically undermine the integrity of the property tax system," Laurence Msall, president of Chicago tax watchdog group the Civic Federation, told the Sun-Times.
"We grant people relief regardless of their income situation, and the rest of the community has to pay more," Msall continued. "It’s unfair, it’s very hard to monitor and it’s hard to authenticate who’s getting the value. Is it the needy people, or is it a large giveaway?"
Regardless of income
In Duckworth’s case, the 53-year-old U.S. senator pays zero in property taxes because she is a disabled U.S. military veteran with a 70% or higher disability rating, as determined by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
She and other similarly disabled veterans in Cook County who own homes get the tax break regardless of their income level, the Sun-Times reported.
Duckworth lost both of her legs and some use of her right arm after the helicopter she was piloting was hit by a rocket-fired grenade in Iraq in 2004.
She and her husband haven’t paid property taxes in Illinois since 2015, saving more than $42,000 through exemptions over that time, according to the newspaper. The couple own a three-bedroom home in Hoffman Estates, Cook County, valued at about $250,000, the report said.
Second home in Virginia
The senator and husband Bryan Bowlsbey also own a six-bedroom, $1.3 million home in Virginia, where they were billed more than $16,000 in taxes this year, according to the report. Virginia offers an exemption for disabled vets that is similar to the one in Cook County, Illinois, but Duckworth and her husband don’t qualify because their Virginia home is not their primary residence, according to the Sun-Times.
Duckworth receives an annual salary of $174,000 and she earned royalties totaling more than $300,000 in both 2019 and 2020 from a book that she wrote, the report said. The income of her husband, who works in cybersecurity, was unclear.
The senator is eligible for the tax break in Illinois until she dies, and if her husband survives her, he will be eligible for the exemption unless he remarries, the Sun-Times reported.
Duckworth declined the Sun-Times’ requests to be interviewed for its story, but she responded when a reporter confronted her about her tax break during a public appearance on Friday.
"I’m surprised that someone would question veterans who have been wounded in service to their nation in a combat zone accessing benefits," Duckworth responded, according to the Sun-Times.
A spokesman for Duckworth said the senator gets the same benefit that any veteran who was similarly disabled would receive.
"Sen. Duckworth has always believed that everyone should pay their fair share in taxes and that those who served this nation in uniform deserve and should claim the benefits they earned," spokesman Ben Garmisa said, according to the report.