One could argue that it takes an optimist to want to be governor of Illinois. And that’s just the type of person that Gov. J.B. Pritzker made himself out to be in today’s budget address.
“I know I have a reputation for being a bit of an irrepressible optimist,” Pritzker said in his opening remarks. “But I believe that the cynics had their years in power and that the people of Illinois suffered because of them. Being a cynic is easy. … It’s optimism that’s hard. Because optimism demands hope, and patience, and faith, and most importantly, action.”
Pritzker can certainly claim a move toward action in the budgetary arena, after the state went two years without a budget under his predecessor. So what does the budget proposal his office released today have in store for the Illinois General Assembly?
In terms of new contributions to the proposed budget, Pritzker noted operational efficiencies and possible agency consolidations that could save taxpayers more than $225 million each year. He estimated that the new cannabis law will generate at least $46 million for the general fund in the next fiscal year.
One potential budgetary boost that hasn’t yet been settled is the shift away from Illinois’ flat income tax to a more graduated model. Though the General Assembly passed income tax rates that will decrease the tax rate for lower- and middle-income earners and raise the rate that wealthy people pay the state, the new rates will go into effect only if voters choose to remove the constitutional prohibition on a graduated tax this November. In the budget document, the governor’s office noted that if the amendment passes, there will be a 20 percent increase in the current property tax credit from the existing 5 percent rate to 6 percent of property taxes paid. The governor plans to spend $100 million from the proceeds of the graduated income tax to pay down pension debt.
In terms of new spending, the budget proposes sending $100 million to the Rainy Day Fund over the next 16 months, dedicating more funds to paying off the state’s debts, and spending more on health care and education. (In particular, he proposed expanding early childhood block grant funding, increasing funds for AP tests for low-income high school students, shoring up the College Illinois program for college-bound kids in the state, and increasing MAP grants at the college level.)
Pritzker noted multiple times throughout the speech that efforts to shore up the state’s budget will impact homeowners. Funding schools properly at the state level will “allow us to alleviate spiraling local property tax burdens throughout our state,” and addressing pension shortfalls “means lower property tax pressure on families and businesses across the state.”
A call for unity
Pritzker also addressed a perceived animosity toward Chicagoland from downstate politicians: “Trying to separate Chicago from the rest of Illinois, whether rhetorically or literally, will not solve the economic challenges of downstate Illinois. Quite the opposite. Some of you need to stop pretending that one part of Illinois can exist without all the others. We are one Illinois.”
In terms of how that might translate to legislation, Pritzker noted that the Chicago casino issue still looms large: “My office is working with the City of Chicago and the General Assembly to make a much needed adjustment in the legislation passed last spring to help make sure the Chicago casino is a success that will help fund projects throughout our state.”
The governor also appealed to a sense of duty to make investments that will incrementally create a more livable environment for Illinoisans. “These lines on a budget spreadsheet — they give peace to sleepless nights worrying about medical bills, they are delivery on a deferred dream, they stand between poverty and prosperity,” he said. “Every worry that we erase, every dream that we fund, every obstacle we remove is a small bit of happiness that we give back to our citizens.”