Poised to become Illinois 43rd governor, Democrat JB Pritzker enters office Monday, striking a conciliatory political tone toward both Democrats in power and Republicans as he prepares to move an ambitious legislative agenda focused on “lifting up working families.”
Pritzker, of Chicago, is scheduled to take the oath of office at 12:01 p.m. and, already, his ascension is establishing a starkly different mood in Springfield in contrast with the acrimonious and unproductive era of departing Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
When Pritzker takes control, he’ll have stacked Democratic supermajorities in both the Illinois House and Senate to carry his legislative agenda, creating one of the most potent strangleholds the party has ever had on state government.
In a wide-ranging interview with WBEZ on Friday, Pritzker pulled back the curtain slightly on what he hopes to accomplish during his first 100 days in office.
“I ran on a progressive agenda that’s focused on lifting up working families across the state, making sure we’re lowering the cost of college, expanding health care to everyone in the state, and lifting up wages and creating jobs, and those are precisely the things I’m going to be focused on,” he said.
“We obviously have some real challenges from a fiscal perspective. We need to overcome those challenges. I’m going to do that, and you’ll start to see that as I introduce a budget,” the governor-elect said.
Pritzker has pegged his plan to stabilize state finances on persuading lawmakers to put a constitutional question on the November 2020 ballot that would rid Illinois of its flat income tax rate and replace it with a sliding scale that would tax higher wage earners at a higher rate.
In the interview, Pritzker again refused to divulge the specific tax rates in his plan, as he did during the campaign. That will be the subject of negotiations with the state legislature, he said, and a resolution isn’t required until a May 2020 deadline.
Pressed to handicap the tax plan’s chances of winning approval from voters in a likely, high-turnout presidential election, Pritzker voiced uncertainty.
“You know, nothing’s a slam dunk. I would say this, that I really believe the people of Illinois want a fair tax system, that they understand working families and middle-class families deserve a break, and that people who can most afford to pay ought to pay a little bit more, and that makes the system fairer. And again, that will help us grow our economy,” Pritzker said.
Its chances are buoyed by support from Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, who also has embraced another major plank of the Pritzker legislative agenda, the legalization of recreational cannabis. Pritzker has said that could generate as much as $700 million for the state and indicated on Friday that he believes no one under the age of 21 should be able to buy it.
Alignment on the tax and recreational cannabis issues between the top two Democrats bodes well for both measures. And it marks a new political day in Springfield, when the occupant of the Executive Mansion won’t be in a state of constant warfare with the powerful House speaker.
A bitter political stalemate between Rauner and Madigan left Illinois with no budget for two years and decimated the state’s already-dismal finances.
“As you know, a governor has to work with the legislature, and so demonizing leaders in the legislature is unproductive. That’s something that Gov. Rauner was famous for, and he’s also famous for not having gotten a lot done,” Pritzker said.
Pritzker said another initiative he’d like to see movement on quickly is a hike in the minimum wage to $15 per hour. The minimum rate of $8.25 an hour that employers must pay their workers hasn’t been changed since 2011.
Pritzker also is entering office with a pledge to work with Republicans, even though their voting presence in the legislature is largely irrelevant. With GOP superminorities in both the House and Senate, Republican votes aren’t sufficient enough to hold up borrowing or have any influence on gubernatorial vetoes.
“I have principles that I live by that are fundamental Democratic principles, but I also think Republicans have good ideas that can be incorporated, and we ought to work across the aisle. We’ve got to get beyond this hyper-partisanship and finally focus on problem-solving for the state,” the governor-elect said.
Pritzker also said he is committed to following through on the Rauner administration’s $250 million rebuild of the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy, where the deaths of 14 residents have been linked to Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks that have been the subject of an ongoing WBEZ investigation. He also said he wants to see a stalled veterans’ home in Chicago to completion.
“The veterans there were mistreated. The veterans there were not kept secure,” Pritzker said of the recurring outbreaks at the Quincy facility. “I’m glad now there’s a plan in place, and I’ll be following through on the plan to keep them safe to make sure we’re building the new veterans’ home at Quincy and getting that project done.”
Pritzker reiterated his hope that a dozen pending lawsuits filed against the state in the Illinois Court of Claims by Legionnaires’ victims’ families will soon be settled by incoming Democratic Attorney General Kwame Raoul, whose office is also overseeing an ongoing criminal probe of the outbreaks. In lawsuits against the state, the attorney general serves as defense lawyer to the governor.
“This is something that’s going to be negotiated by the attorney general’s office, as you know, so I’m unclear exactly what those payouts will be. But I do think we ought to complete the process, and we should have made sure there’s an opportunity for those families to get justice,” he said.
Pritzker stopped short, however, of guaranteeing each family will be able to take advantage of a new $2 million cap on damage claims against the state that lawmakers imposed over Rauner’s objections.
Pritzker takes office squarely in the middle of a political honeymoon, and Republican lawmakers appear ready to cast aside Rauner’s anti-Madigan rhetoric and strike a productive relationship with the state’s incoming chief executive.
“I think that with a new administration, new faces and, new ideas, there is a sense of optimism we can move forward and maybe not be as adversarial as we’ve been over the past few years,” House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, told WBEZ.
While pledging to work with Pritzker, Durkin also made clear that at least a couple of the new governor’s main agenda items aren’t in sync with Republican priorities.
“I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to this administration when they say they’re looking for Republican participation and will work with us on our priorities. But I think the governor-elect also knows in our caucus, there are some things we’ll never be accepting of, particularly when it comes to changing the constitution on our taxes, and the $15 minimum wage is very troubling for our business community and our employers,” Durkin said.
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.