Democrat JB Pritzker took the oath of office Monday to become Illinois’ 43rd governor, delivering an upbeat inaugural speech laden with big policy goals and a pledge to steer away from the political dysfunction of the past four years.
“Everything is not broken,” Pritzker said after he was sworn in during a Springfield ceremony attended by four past governors, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and a host of other state and federal dignitaries.
That oblique reference was to the warring ways of his predecessor, former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who repeatedly derided state politics as being “broken.” The comment embodies the more uplifting tone Pritzker wants associated with his governorship, as Democrats grabbed hold of one of the party’s most lopsided majorities ever at Illinois’ statehouse.
The new governor promised to pursue a change in Illinois’ flat income tax rate, legalization of recreational marijuana and gun control. He also vowed to secure a near-doubling of the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour and pass the state’s first major infrastructure spending program in nearly a decade.
Pritzker compared Illinois, with its crippling financial woes, to a famous Chicago church that burned to the ground after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The story represented the type of rebirth that he said will be necessary to meet his goal of transforming Illinois into the “fastest-growing big-state economy in the nation.”
“Americans have often had to gather in broken cathedrals, some of stone and glass, some of aspirations and promises, to reaffirm our faith in one another,” the new governor said. “We find ourselves at such a moment now.”
Pritzker wasted little time in addressing the state’s dire finances and pledged to preside over passage this spring of a balanced budget, a normally mundane legislative task that became impossible during a record-setting two-year budget impasse during Rauner’s term.
The governor called on Republicans to work with him in digging the state out from its money morass, bluntly hinting at tough financial votes ahead. That could include the constitutional revision to replace Illinois’ flat 4.95-percent income tax with a sliding scale of tax rates designed to make higher wage earners pay more.
“Our obligations as a state outmatch our resources,” he said. “Our fiscal situation right now is challenging, and the solution requires a collective commitment to embracing hard choices.”
A potential boon for state government that Pritzker put on the table in his speech is the legalization of recreational cannabis, something he has said could generate as much as $700 million annually for the state’s cash-strapped treasury. It also was one of the day’s largest applause lines.
“In the interest of keeping the public safe from harm, expanding true justice in our criminal justice system, and advancing economic inclusion, I will work with the legislature to legalize, tax, and regulate the sale of recreational cannabis in Illinois,” he said.
The new governor made clear that he would not cut programs for the needy or demonize public sector unions, two strategies Rauner attempted in the run-up to the record-breaking budget impasse that will define his legacy.
“I won’t balance the budget on the backs of the starving, the sick, and the suffering,” Pritzker said, drawing loud applause from his partisan audience. “I won’t hollow out the functions of government to achieve an ideological agenda. I won’t make government the enemy and government employees the scapegoats.”
Missing from Pritzker’s speech was any particular strategy to deal with the state’s pension crisis and the financial pressures of having more than $129 billion in unfunded liabilities within the state’s five retirement systems.
Likewise, Pritzker did not spend a significant portion of his speech laying out any kind of sweeping agenda for the state’s public school system or its cash-strapped public universities.
“We will approach education with a holistic mindset — recognizing that students do best in community schools where teachers are paid well and where kids start learning at the earliest ages,” Pritzker said. “And our economy grows when vocational training, community colleges, and universities are strong.”
Pritzker’s speech was met with ridicule from Republicans, who have been relegated to a superminority status in both the House and Senate. In neither legislative chamber does the party alone have sufficient votes to destabilize the governor’s legislative agenda.
“It’s clear that Governor Pritzker’s agenda will be the same agenda that has dragged our state down for decades — borrow, tax, spend, repeat,” state Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider said in a statement. “Over the course of the election and again today, Pritzker promised billions of dollars in new spending, programs, and regulations, all of which our state cannot afford.”
Rauner, meanwhile, kept a low profile during Monday’s inaugural festivities, only tweeting out thanks to voters for putting him in office for one term.
“It has been a privilege to serve the people of Illinois as governor,” the outgoing governor said. “I am so grateful for the opportunity. I pray the new administration will build on the challenges we met to conquer. ... May our future be bright and may God bless our great state.”
Pritzker ended his speech by thanking voters, harkening back to his own family’s path from Ukraine to the United States more than a century ago and calling on Illinoisans to be gracious to one another, both in and out of state politics.
“Over a century ago, public policy grounded by kindness offered a penniless immigrant to Illinois a bed to sleep in, a public school education, and the opportunity to succeed,” he said. “One hundred thirty years later, his great grandson just took the oath of office to be governor of this great state.
“So thank you, Illinois, for your faith in me. I promise to live up to it every day,” Pritzker continued. “Together, let’s go into this new century with enough faith to help each other out of our troubles, with enough foolishness to believe we can make a difference in the world and with enough kindness to find the courage to change.”
Dave McKinney covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @DaveMcKinney.
In the interest of transparency, Chicago Public Media (CPM) reminds its audience that we receive philanthropic support from The Pritzker Foundation. JB Pritzker, who is a candidate for Illinois governor, is not involved in The Pritzker Foundation and does not contribute to it. He and his wife lead a separate philanthropic foundation, the Pritzker Family Foundation, from which CPM has never received any funding.