Pritzker presents $45B budget amid storm, GOP criticism

February 3, 2022 GMT
Illinois Gob J.B. Pritzker speaks during his State of the State address at the Old State Capitol Building, Wednesday Feb. 2, 2022, in Springfield, Ill. (Thomas J. Turney/The State Journal-Register via AP)
Illinois Gob J.B. Pritzker speaks during his State of the State address at the Old State Capitol Building, Wednesday Feb. 2, 2022, in Springfield, Ill. (Thomas J. Turney/The State Journal-Register via AP)
Illinois Gob J.B. Pritzker speaks during his State of the State address at the Old State Capitol Building, Wednesday Feb. 2, 2022, in Springfield, Ill. (Thomas J. Turney/The State Journal-Register via AP)
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Illinois Gob J.B. Pritzker speaks during his State of the State address at the Old State Capitol Building, Wednesday Feb. 2, 2022, in Springfield, Ill. (Thomas J. Turney/The State Journal-Register via AP)
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Illinois Gob J.B. Pritzker speaks during his State of the State address at the Old State Capitol Building, Wednesday Feb. 2, 2022, in Springfield, Ill. (Thomas J. Turney/The State Journal-Register via AP)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — With inflation soaring and snow falling, Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday offered tax relief on groceries, gasoline and property as part of a $45.4 billion budget unveiled in a speech that also served as a warmup for this fall’s gubernatorial election.

In the fiscal outline combined with the annual State of the State address, Pritzker proposed a spending plan for the year beginning July 1 that represents a 3.4% decrease from the current year.

Typically, members of both House and Senate would gather in the House chamber to receive the governor’s spending ideas, but the three-day winter storm forced legislative leaders to cancel all three scheduled session days this week.

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Pritzker instead chose to speak at the historic Old State Capitol where he paid tribute to special guests, a group of teachers and medical professionals battling the COVID-19 pandemic who “have showed up to work ... during the worst health crisis our state has ever seen.”

The state of the state, Pritzker said, is “strong, unbreakable and enduring.”

With inflation pushing 7%, the governor wants to lift for one year the 1% sales tax on groceries, freeze the motor fuel tax that goes toward road building at 39.2 cents per gallon instead of allowing the indexed rate to increase to 2.2 cents and provide a rebate of up to $300 dollars equal to the property tax credit available on income taxes.

The 57-year-old Democrat believes he’s on solid ground because of a stronger economy and his administration’s attention to past debt and spending. In November, Pritzker’s budget office reported tax revenue in the current year is $1.7 billion higher than anticipated.

Pritzker said the budget balances even without $8 billion in federal pandemic relief. He noted the contribution of Democratic Comptroller Susana Mendoza.

“Painstaking work has been done ... over the last 3 years to diligently and meticulously reverse the irresponsible decisions of the past and ensure that responsible budgeting would become the rule, not the exception,” Pritzker said.

But Pritzker’s assurance is contrary to the outcry from Republicans vying for Pritzker’s job.

A key challenger claimed that increased taxes are inevitable once federal money is spent. Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin reminded voters in a news release that Pritzker sought more revenue by increasing the share paid by wealthy taxpayers through a graduated income tax, which voters rejected in 2020.

“He plans to raise billions more in taxes when the federal money runs out,” Irvin, who has yet to appear publicly in his campaign, said in the statement.

Sen. Dave Syverson said the federal money reduces overall spending, but disguises a $2.5 billion increase in operations. Those are costs that will continue even when there’s no federal money to cover them, the Rockford Republican said, presenting “a massive cliff after the election that unfortunately taxpayers are going to get stuck with.”

Pritzker’s office countered that the $8 billion in federal aid — the current budget uses $1.5 billion and there’s $535 million in the proposed plan — has been used for pandemic-related expenses, not ongoing programs, and that they’ve adjusted for a federal funding dropoff.

Bull Valley businessman Gary Rabine, another GOP hopeful, was unconvinced, saying in a statement that President “Biden paid off J.B.’s Illinois credit cards last year, but we are still in a fiscal death spiral.”

There’s no question the plan shows substantial investments in debt long haunting the state. Pritzker intends to eliminate this year the $898 million in past-due bills for the employee health insurance program. What in recent years has been a monstrous backlog of bills due state vendors — $7 billion on Wednesday — will be reduced to $2.7 billion, putting it on a 21-day payment schedule. There’s even $900 million socked away in a rainy day fund for unanticipated emergencies.

And the leviathan hole in state employee pension funding, about $130 billion, will get an additional, if small, contribution. The $9.6 billion put toward pensions in the coming budget still isn’t enough to stay on track with a law requiring substantially paid-up coverage by 2045. Pritzker is bumping that up by $500 million to reach what aides call a “tread water point.”

There is additional program spending as well. The Department of Children and Family Services would get $200 million, in part to hire 360 more employees to deal with increasing caseloads of troubled children, a problem given extra attention by the stabbing death of a caseworker in the field last month.

The Department of Human Services would get $95 million more to care for residents with intellectual or developmental disabilities in a continued effort to provide equitable funding.

The $350 million annual increase for K-12 education promised in a 2017 public education overhaul is there and the needs-based Monetary Award Program to assist with college education will increase to $600 million, a 28.5% increase.

Rising crime will be a major issue in the campaign. Pritzker would put $800 million into prevention programs, recruit 300 additional state police officers, put $50 million in cannabis tax revenue toward communities with crime problems and increase funding to prevent gang crimes, hate crimes and increase staff at forensic crime labs.

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Follow Political Writer John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor