Building on a “remarkable” fiscal rebound, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker proposed a $49.6 billion state budget Wednesday, prioritizing increased spending on everything from early childhood initiatives to education to reproductive health care.
In the first big swing of his second term, Pritzker also underscored his work the past four years in stabilizing Illinois’ finances after a two-year budget impasse under his GOP predecessor crippled state operations, hollowed out social service agencies and put egg on the state’s face nationally.
“Our budgets are built on a solid foundation of normalized state revenue and more efficient management of state resources,” Pritzker said at the start of his nearly hour-long address to a joint session of the Democratic-led state legislature.
“Which is why, here in Illinois in 2023, I’m confident in saying the state of our state is stronger than it has been in decades, and we’re getting stronger every day.”
Pritzker has steered the state through what seems like the worst of the pandemic that killed 36,000 Illinoisans while state unemployment has remained low and consumer spending hasn’t nosedived. As a result, he’s avoided a governorship defined by the fiscal craters that came after previous jolts like 9/11 and the 2008 financial crash.
Even though revenue from state income and sales taxes are projected to keep growing, overall revenues are forecast to drop during the upcoming fiscal year by about 3%. The governor’s spending blueprint also calls for roughly a 1% decline in overall state spending in the 2024 fiscal cycle that begins July 1.
Despite that slight dropoff, one area the governor put off-limits for any spending rollbacks is early childhood education and child care. The governor proposed allotting $250 million toward that multi-year initiative, helping to increase pay for child care workers and adding thousands of preschool slots.
He also is proposing $100 million in new construction funding to help child care providers to build new or expanded facilities.
“This program will be the beginning of the end of early childhood deserts in Illinois, and working families will have more and better options for their children,” he said.
New spending on public schools would jump by $571 million under Pritzker’s plan, and the state’s fleet of public universities would see a $219 million funding increase.
Within the higher ed budget, $100 million would be set aside to increase funding for the Monetary Award Program, which Pritzker’s administration said would enable “nearly all community college students and 40% of public university students to have their tuition fees covered through MAP and Pell grants.
And the governor wants lawmakers to earmark an additional $200 million more than required for Fiscal 2024 state pension contributions to chip away at Illinois’ chronically underfunded pension system. That would bring the overall annual commitment toward pensions to $10 billion in the upcoming fiscal year, marking the first time that the state would commit more than required under pension-funding requirements established in 1994.
The governor also proposed increases of $50 million for homelessness prevention programs, $50 million for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and $20 million to help communities entice grocery stores to open in underserved rural and urban neighborhoods.
Pritzker further called for a $45 million to upgrade the state Public Health Department’s computer systems to better monitor future pandemics.
And the governor urged funding to expand abortion services across the state that have seen triple the demand since Roe v. Wade was overturned last year by the U.S. Supreme Court. He proposed creating a hotline to help patients in need of abortions get risk assessment and find services, like transportation, lodging and insurance coverage and $5 million to provide training for reproductive health care workers.
“Let’s not pull punches. This is the result of a national conservative crusade to legislate against the most intimate matters of a woman’s basic healthcare. I’m sure there are some elected officials who would like us to stop talking about abortion. Well, too bad,” the governor said to applause from Democrats in the audience.
The Chicago Democrat’s budget address came after Pritzker won a clear mandate from voters by trouncing his Republican opponent last fall and marked the first time the governor appeared before a joint session of the legislature since the beginning of the pandemic. Last year’s budget speech was remote because of a snowstorm.
The newly seated group of lawmakers he addressed is still heavily Democratic with clear-cut supermajorities in both the House and Senate, meaning Pritzker’s legislative priorities stand a reasonable chance of getting through the statehouse by May relatively unscathed.
While Republicans lack the numbers to build any kind of meaningful roadblocks to Pritzker and the Democrats, that didn’t stop them from attacking the governor’s budgetary blueprint for the state’s 2024 fiscal year.
House Minority Leader Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, criticized the new spending the governor proposed, saying it would “require future tax increases or cuts to vital programs serving our most vulnerable.”
And state Rep. Dan Ugaste, R-Geneva, said Pritzker’s spending blueprint will hurt Illinois businesses.
“In response to the glaring issues which Illinois faces – sky high property taxes, endless regulations, and other unnecessary costs – Gov. Pritzker is proposing new spending on Illinois’ budgetary house of cards,” he said. “This budget proposal will do nothing but hinder our terrible climate for job creators and cause Illinois families to find moving trucks out of our unaffordable state.”
Despite such criticism, Illinois’ financial footing has undeniably improved on Pritzker’s watch. He and Democrats in the legislature eliminated an $8 billion unpaid bill backlog inherited from GOP predecessor Bruce Rauner. A rainy day fund that stood at $60,000 when Pritzker took office in 2019 now sits at $1.9 billion.
Those improvements contributed to six bond-rating upgrades for the state since 2019 after Illinois’ credit rating hovered at near junk-bond status during Rauner’s fiscally turbulent time in office.
Pritzker ended his speech Wednesday with a denunciation of the “virulent strain of nationalism plaguing our nation” that has resulted in attacks on school board members and library trustees.
“This afternoon, I’ve laid out a budget agenda that does everything possible to invest in the education of our children. Yet it’s all meaningless if we become a nation that bans books from school libraries about racism suffered by Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron and tells kids they can’t talk about being gay and signals to Black and Brown people and Asian Americans and Jews and Muslims that our authentic stories can’t be told,” the governor said.
“Our nation has a great history and much to be proud of. I want my children to learn that history. But I don’t want them to be lied to,” he said to applause. “I want them to learn our true history, warts and all. Illinois’ young people shouldn’t be kept from learning about the realities of our world.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois state politics for WBEZ.