Pritzker's first budget: 'An honest proposal'
Governor strikes note of ‘humble honesty and bold optimism’ in charting course on ‘the road to normal conditions’
By Ted Cox
Striking a note of “humble honesty and bold optimism,” Gov. Pritzer laid out a balanced $39 billion budget Wednesday that adds spending for education, health care, and public safety, in part by legalizing marijuana and sports gambling.
Calling it “an honest proposal,” Pritzker opened the half-hour address at the state Capitol with a bipartisan appeal for legislators to “serve the people of our state well.”
Saying, “Our state does well when when our people do well,” Pritzker made a strong pitch for what he called “a fair income tax” in the years to come, to place Illinois on “firm fiscal ground.” But in the short term, with the budget for the 2020 fiscal year, he laid out plans to increase spending on education, health and human services, and the state police — saying they would “pay dividends down the road” — by raising what he estimated to be $170 million for recreational pot and $200 million for sports gambling, just in licensing and other fees in the first year, while taxing insurance companies to the tune of $390 million, with a percentage of that going to Medicaid along with additional federal matching funds.
“This is a constrained budget — more austere than I would like,” Pritzker said, “but I think it’s important that we be disciplined and focused over the next few years to pay down our bill backlog and the debt left over from prior administrations.”
Pritzker said Illinois politicians make the same complaints in every era: “There is not enough money to address social ills, not enough jobs to employ people, not enough resources to adequately maintain and build our infrastructure, and not enough attention to the plight of working families. It may not surprise you to learn that these problems existed in 1819, they existed in 1919, and they exist today in 2019.”
Acknowledging a $3.2 billion structural deficit and $15 billion in unpaid bills, as well as a pension shortfall estimated at $134 billion, he nonetheless insisted the state is vital, with the resources to address its own problems. Quoting the state’s Depression-era Gov. Henry Horner, he said, “The road to normal conditions is in sight.”
He was unsparing in criticizing his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. “We lost four critical years because of an ideological battle,” Pritzker said. “That stops now.”
He explained how more than half of the state’s $39 billion annual budget goes to pensions, debt, and federally mandated programs, and that the balance of “discretionary spending” includes “the money we spend educating our children, running our colleges and universities, keeping our streets safe, preserving our natural resources, getting people to and from work efficiently, and caring for our veterans.”
Pritzker rejected an approach that would only cut spending, saying that would result in slashing those programs 15 percent across the board. “This option was tried in the prior administration, and it failed,” he said. He also rejected raising revenue only through taxes and fees under the current regressive tax structure, saying that would call for a 20 percent tax hike. Instead, he advocated what he called “a fair income tax,” to “ask the wealthiest to pay just a little bit more,” including himself.
Pritzker immediately added, “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.
“It is not fair that I pay the same tax rate as a teacher, a child-care worker, a police officer, or a nurse,” Pritzker said. “The state needs a fair tax, and I am going to be relentless in pursuing one over the next two years.”
“It is not fair that I pay the same tax rate as a teacher, a child-care worker, a police officer, or a nurse. The state needs a fair tax, and I am going to be relentless in pursuing one over the next two years.”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker (One Illinois/Ted Cox)
The state constitution calls for a flat income tax, the same for all filers, and would need to be changed by overwhelming majority votes in the General Assembly and in next year’s general election. But at the end of that 18-month period, Pritzker added, “A fair tax will change the arc of Illinois state finances forever.”
He repeated the five-part proposal laid out by Deputy Gov. Dan Hynes last week to address the state’s pension crisis, saying, “We must be consistent and persistent in that approach,” which includes adoption of a progressive income tax.
But in the meantime he called on the state to “restore and improve our education system,” including a 5 percent increase in spending on higher education, as well as adding $120 million to Early Childhood Block Grants to widen preschool programs.
“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker insisted. “So let’s not hollow out vital government services anymore.
“This is less than what I would like to do,” Pritzker added. “But it is what we can afford to do in year one of our recovery.”
He said he would “grow jobs” by working to attract entrepreneurs, and he was adamant about his freshly signed increase in the state minimum wage, saying, “The current minimum wage is a lifetime sentence to poverty.”
Throughout, Pritzker tempered harsh realities with a sense of optimism and shared burdens. “I know the road ahead is hard,” he said, “but I think it’s about time we walk it together.”