Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker hailed the final passage Wednesday of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package as a major fiscal win for the state’s cash-strapped coffers and for Illinoisans awaiting $1,400 stimulus checks.
The governor and Democratic U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, whose House subcommittee helped shape how much state and local governments would receive, dissected one of the largest spending packages ever assembled in Congress during a joint appearance on WBEZ’s morning newscast.
“It’s very important to us,” Pritzker said. “We unfortunately had to go several billion dollars into debt to cover the challenges that we saw at the very earliest part of this pandemic. And then there have been areas of revenue where we’ve seen losses. And then, in addition to that, our bill backlog rose in part because of expenses related to COVID-19.
“So, all of the money that’s coming in is very helpful for us to both pay back the debts we had to put on the books because of COVID-19 and to help us stimulate the economy to make sure we’re bringing back the jobs,” Pritzker said.
Under the plan, an estimated $13.2 billion in state and local funding is earmarked for Illinois, including $1.8 billion for Chicago.
State government is due to receive about $7.5 billion, with another $5.5 billion set aside for city and county governments across Illinois.
The governor said the federal package, with its approximately $275 million for vaccine distribution efforts in Illinois, and approximately $1.5 billion for testing and for public health departments, will be especially helpful in speeding up COVID-19 vaccinations statewide.
“That’s one of the most important things that [the federal package] does,” Pritzker said. “It provides some support for states to make sure that we can get people to their vaccinations, that we can provide the kind of vaccination coverage all over the state. This is a very large state, 57,000 to 58,000 square miles of Illinois, and we need to get to every single one of our residents.
“So those dollars will really help us open our mass [vaccination] sites across the state as well as to work with our local public health departments who are on the frontlines of getting our people vaccinated,” he said.
Krishnamoorthi, who represents parts of Chicago’s northwest suburbs, said the passage of the package means scores of Illinoisans should soon be receiving stimulus checks worth up to $1,400 per adult, depending on income.
“This is going to be a huge day for Americans,” he said.
And while Republicans en masse have opposed the Biden package, in part because of its generous outlays to Democratic-controlled states and cities, Krishnamoorthi said that aid is essential “for making sure that state and local governments don’t have to engage in tax hikes or service cuts.”
Pritzker has made clear one of his first spending priorities once that money reaches Illinois will be the repayment of $2.875 billion in loans the state took out last year from the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity Facility to help offset the fiscal impact of COVID-19.
That commitment caught the eye of some of the bond-rating agencies, which for years have consistently rated Illinois’ state government as a notch above junk-bond status because of its long-running budgetary ills.
“If the state focuses use of the significant one-time infusion to reduce liabilities and on other one-time needs, it could support stabilization of the state’s fiscal resilience and rating outlook,” according to a statement released Tuesday by Fitch Ratings.
Even without the infusion of new federal dollars, state revenues are showing promising signs of recovery.
On Tuesday, the state Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, the nonpartisan fiscal research arm of the General Assembly, revised its revenue outlook for state government upward by nearly $2.4 billion above estimates from last November.
Substantial upticks in state income and sales tax revenues, the primary generators of income for state government, were behind the surge.
As a potential state recovery from the pandemic begins coming into sharper focus, Pritzker told WBEZ Wednesday that he takes pride in how Illinois has managed through a public health crisis that he insists still has not completely run its course.
Asked if he has any regrets looking back, the governor told WBEZ morning news host Mary Dixon, “Oh, I’m sure that if I examined day by day everything that we had to do that there are things that I might do differently with what I know now rather than what I knew then. But the truth is that we were in an emergency, and we had to make decisions without much help from the federal government.
“In fact, early on, we were getting almost no help at all, and I had to fight for everything. We didn’t have [personal protective equipment]. We didn’t have advice from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] that was reliable early on. So we had to rely on everything here in Illinois that we knew how to do,” the governor said.
Pritzker said that the way most Illinoisans embraced his administration’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts was key to helping the state avoid a wave of illness last summer that many other states experienced.
“I’m very proud of where we’ve been and where we’re going,” the governor said.
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.