State Of The State: Pritzker Touts First Year Wins, Calls For Ethics Reforms To Stop Corruption ‘Scourge’

Springfield Capital building
Associated Press
Springfield Capital building
Associated Press

State Of The State: Pritzker Touts First Year Wins, Calls For Ethics Reforms To Stop Corruption ‘Scourge’

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Updated: 4:22 p.m.

In his State of the State speech, Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday took a victory lap after a whirlwind freshman year and laid out an ambitious spring legislative agenda that includes confronting the “scourge” of corruption that “infects the bloodstream of government.”

Appearing before a joint session of the state legislature, Pritzker reflected on a first year that included passage of a balanced budget and $45 billion infrastructure package, the legalization of recreational marijuana, an increase in the minimum wage and even a stop to the revocation of drivers licenses due to unpaid tickets – an initiative driven by the reporting of WBEZ and ProPublica Illinois.

The governor also highlighted his reversal of a controversial state policy that made it harder for low-income children to get vaccinated. The governor made the decision last year after a series of WBEZ’s stories.

“By almost every measure, over the past year, we’ve improved the financial wellbeing, health, education and safety of the residents of Illinois – and we did it working together,” Pritzker said.

The governor’s speech came one day after the negotiated guilty plea of former Democratic state Sen. Martin Sandoval to bribery and tax evasion charges. The conviction of the once-powerful lawmaker represents the first legislative casualty of a sprawling federal corruption probe that continues to broaden.

Against that backdrop, Pritzker used his State of the State speech to distance himself from that corruption by vowing a legislative bleach-bath to clean up Springfield.

“We must root out the purveyors of greed and corruption – in both parties – whose presence infects the bloodstream of government,” he said. “It’s no longer enough to sit idle while under-the-table deals, extortion or bribery persist.”

His call for passage of “real, lasting ethics reform this legislative session” provoked a standing ovation from Republicans and Democrats who gathered in the state House of Representatives to watch the governor’s speech.

Included in the ethics-reform roadmap Pritzker outlined Wednesday was an end to legislators serving simultaneously as lobbyists, beefed up of disclosure requirements for conflicts of interest and the imposition of a revolving door ban to prevent lawmakers from leaving the legislature and immediately going to work for special interests in highly-paid lobbying gigs.

The governor also insisted ethics reform has to be a personal choice.

“Change needs to happen, and much of this change needs to happen outside of the scope of legislation,” Pritzker said. “It’s about how we, as public officials, conduct ourselves in private that also matters. Common sense and basic decency need to prevail in the everyday interactions that make government work. People need to treat disgusting suggestions with disgust. The old patronage systems needs to die, finally and completely.”

Part of the federal criminal investigation has focused on lobbying activities by Commonwealth Edison and Exelon Corp., which continue to look to Springfield for help in bailing out a money-losing fleet of nuclear power plants.

Pritzker made clear that he embraces passage of “new clean energy legislation that reduces carbon pollution, promotes renewable energy and accelerates electrification of our transportation sector.”

But he drew the line on letting the embattled utilities dictate what that legislative package looks like, as they have in the past.

“Urgent action is needed, but let me be clear: The old ways of negotiating energy legislation are over,” he said. “It’s time to put consumers and climate first. I’m not going to sign an energy bill written by the utility companies.”

Other items on Pritzker’s legislative wish list include working to address inequities in Illinois’ criminal justice system, including an end to cash bail requirements that force poor people to remain in jail as they await charges; and lowering property taxes across the state.

On property taxes, Pritzker didn’t offer specifics at limiting their skyrocketing climb beyond hinting at some effort to consolidate or eliminate some of the nearly 7,000 property tax-imposing units of government in the state.

Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan praised Pritzker’s “straightforward assessment” of accomplishments during the governor’s first year. He also promised to work with the governor this spring on a new budget and on making health care more affordable and expanding education.

Madigan was positioned directly behind Pritzker as the governor delivered his speech. Federal investigators have sought information about the speaker in their wide-ranging corruption probe, though no specific allegations of wrongdoing have been lodged against him. In a statement after the speech, the speaker expressed his support for ethics reforms, though he offered no specifics.

“It’s clear that we must take significant steps within the coming weeks to restore confidence in state government,” Madigan said. “But let’s be clear: Bad actors will always try to game the system and break the law. We must commit to sending the clearest sign the game is over and every step will be taken to prosecute.”

Republicans criticized Pritzker for not going directly after the speaker during the portion of his speech devoted to ethics reforms.

“I just don’t know when somebody in the Democratic Party is gonna stand up to their party chairman and ask for the speaker to resign,” state Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, said on WBEZ’s Reset immediately after Pritzker’s speech.

“The governor’s obviously ramping up his rhetoric on that issue but I don’t think we’re going to be rid of any of this stuff until the speaker’s gone,” Batinick said.

Pritzker’s address lasted roughly 35 minutes, and he concluded it with an emphasis on diversity. The governor recounted how he asked Secretary of State Jesse White last year to fly a Pride flag over the statehouse for the first time in Illinois history.

“We have a choice about how we tell our story, and I want our Illinois story be one of hope, inclusion, opportunity and kindness,” he said. “I want it to be inspired every day by the fundamental goodness of the people who live and work here and who struggle so hard for a fair shot.

“Those are good ideals to live by. Those are good ideals to govern by,” he concluded. “Let’s all try to remember them in the year ahead.”