Illinois Gov. Pritzker Outlines $700M In ‘Painful’ Budget Cuts

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker appears at a news conference Friday, March 20, 2020, in Chicago. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker appears at a news conference Friday, March 20, 2020, in Chicago. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

Illinois Gov. Pritzker Outlines $700M In ‘Painful’ Budget Cuts

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker is outlining more than $700 million in budget cuts to public safety, human service grants and the prison system just a month after voters rejected his signature graduated income tax plan.

On Nov. 3, Illinoisans firmly voted against changing the state constitution to move the state from its current flat income tax system to a graduated income tax, where wealthier people pay higher tax rates. The Democrat’s administration estimated that would have raised $3 billion a year.

The failure of the measure – which Pritzker called the “Fair Tax” – blew a hole in a state budget that was already devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cuts Pritzker identified are meant to address the structural deficit the state already had before the pandemic, Pritzker said, with the idea that Congress may eventually help state and local governments with their pandemic-related deficits.

“Our schools and our public safety and health care deserve more investments, not less,” Pritzker said. “So cutting our budget will be — by its very nature — painful.”

Among the cuts Pritzker highlighted Tuesday:

  • Negotiating with labor unions to impose furlough days for state workers

  • Reducing grants to various state agencies, including the Departments of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Commerce and Economic Opportunity

  • Continuing a reduction of state employee travel unless necessary

  • Continuing hiring freezes that were implemented at the beginning of the pandemic

  • Delaying the purchase of any more vehicles for the state fleet

The governor would have to negotiate with unions to impose unpaid days off for state workers. But he does have the authority to make the other cuts unilaterally.

Pritzker also said he will be forming a group that will investigate how the state could consolidate — or even close — some facilities managed by the Department of Corrections, given that the prison population has decreased so much since the start of the pandemic.

“Because tax fairness was taken off the table, there will be a real human impact here,” he said. “And while we’ve scoured the budget for ways to cause the least pain, I’m sorry to say that we simply cannot prevent these losses from touching the real lives of our residents.”

Pritzker had previously said he would not recommend cuts to state agencies that are on the front lines of responding to the pandemic, such as the departments of public health or employment security.

Pritzker also called on Congress and President Donald Trump to finalize a long-stalled compromise over sending federal aid to state and local governments that have seen budget holes swell after large swaths of the economy closed to help stem the spread of COVID-19. Those talks were still ongoing Tuesday, with the plan to prop up state and local governments reportedly in doubt.

Pritzker’s proposed graduated income tax was defeated in November’s election, collecting just 46.7% of the vote in favor of the shift. Opponents — funded in large part by billionaire Citadel founder and CEO Ken Griffin — questioned whether taxpayers should trust Springfield politicians with spending more of their money.

Pritzker had blistering comments for Illinois Republicans who helped defeat the measure, prompting State Sen. Dan McConchie, the next minority leader of the Illinois State Senate, immediately to fire back after Pritzker’s announced cuts.

“During the current budget cycle, instead of taking up spending reforms in anticipation of hard times to follow from COVID-19, Democrats and the Governor increased spending, relying on magic money from the federal government that never materialized,” McConchie said in a statement. “This is the kind of recklessness that voters know all too well and is the real reason they rejected Springfield digging deeper into people’s pockets.”

The defeat of the graduated income tax led Pritzker to call for House Speaker Michael Madigan to resign his position as chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois.

Madigan has been ensnared in a sprawling federal corruption probe that has led to the deferred prosecution of Commonwealth Edison. The power company has admitted it engaged in a years-long effort to bribe Madigan by handing out jobs and contracts to the speaker’s political allies in exchange for favorable legislation.

“The Republicans and the billionaires that sided with them were effectively able to use the speaker as their foil, and that hurt our state’s ability to get things done, and the truth is that Democrats are standing up for the middle class and getting important things done to support them,” Pritzker said just days after the November election results were tallied.

Despite those calls that he step down from his leadership roles, Madigan has shown no indications he plans to step aside.

Madigan denies wrongdoing and has not been charged.

But he has lost the support of 19 House Democrats in his bid to remain House Speaker come January’s inauguration. As he attempts to cobble together the needed 60 votes to be elected speaker, Madigan told members of the House Black Caucus that he would support an increase in the flat income tax if Pritzker advocates for it, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

On Tuesday, Pritzker remained noncommittal, saying he’s focused on the cuts.

During the campaign, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton suggested that if the graduated income tax measure fails, legislators would raise the flat tax by 20% — essentially a full percentage point – to 5.94%.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold