Pritzker: ‘There really is no Illinois Democratic Party’

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Illinois may need another tax hike to balance the books and pay for needed public investments, even if the progressive income tax eventually comes about.

That was the fiscal bottom line from Democratic gubernatorial hopeful J.B. Pritzker today as the Chicago entrepreneur and investor, who’s moved ahead in some recent polls, met with Crain’s Editorial Board for a wide-ranging interview.

In an hour-long session, Pritzker also underlined his differences with Democratic rivals on key business issues, including whether to seek to attract Amazon’s proposed 50,000 jobs here. And while he declined to formally disassociate himself from Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, Pritzker suggested he will keep intact the statewide political operation he is assembling for his race, an organization that one day could rival Madigan’s.

In the interview, Pritzker’s first extensive sitdown with Crain’s since he announced his candidacy earlier this year, he said a top goal is to expand state revenues by growing its economy.

“If you want to add revenue, the first focus is on accelerating growth and not raising taxes,” he said.

Pritzker said he would do that by investing in education and infrastructure, something he said would attract young talent and jobs, much as they have in relatively high-tax states such as California, Minnesota and New York. The solution is not to travel the country and the world “bashing” Illinois like incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner has, Pritzker continued. And it’s certainly not the “lower wages and benefits” Rauner has advocated with his attacks on organized labor, he said.

NEW MONEY NEEDED

However, even if waste is cut, some new money will be needed to pay bills and meet tomorrow’s needs, Pritzker said.

Some will come from amending the Illinois Constitution to allow a progressive income tax, something that would require a referendum vote, likely in 2020. Pritzker said he could not estimate how much that would pull in, but he projected the state would net another $300 million to $700 million by legalizing and taxing marijuana.

Would that be enough to meet all the needs while growth accelerates?

“No. But it depends on how you prioritize,” Pritzker replied.

Would boosted income from a progressive income tax suffice?

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I haven’t proposed a budget. . . .(But) it’s clear that we are underfunding schools.”

Pritzker later suggested that some spending cuts would be on the table, but did not get specific.

PENSION SOLUTION?

Another solution mentioned by some—cutting funds to government retirement systems, perhaps by forcing some into bankruptcy—is not a viable solution, Pritzker said.

While both major political parties bear some responsibilities, the key decisions to under-fund pensions and run up debt were taken by prior GOP governors, and enforced by Illinois Supreme Court rulings, Pritzker said. “I don’t think it’s fair to take any employees’ pensions when they’ve been promised them.” Instead, he said, the state has the ability to meet its obligations and “I think we can.”

On Speaker Madigan, who also serves as chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, Pritzker surprised me when he repeatedly went out of his way to declare that the party, unlike its siblings in other states, has atrophied under Madigan’s nearly two decades of leadership.

“There really is no Illinois Democratic Party,” Pritzker said, referring in part to the lack of a unified field organization, but also to the fact that the party’s central committee doesn’t even bother to meet to consider endorsing candidates any more. “The Democratic Party doesn’t exist. . . .I believe we need to build a real Democratic Party in Illinois when it comes to field.”

Pritzker said he’s now doing just that with his own campaign, setting up a structure of workers in every corner of the state—and he indicated that structure might continue later. He ducked when asked if that would work if the structure was turned over to Madigan, who usually is mostly concerned about retaining control of the House: “I don’t know,” Pritzker said. But he seemed to bend over backward to refute charges from Rauner and some Democratic rivals that he has the speaker’s private backing.

TERM LIMIT SUPPORT

“I don’t owe my election to anybody. I’m getting elected on my own,” he said. And if he hasn’t called for Madigan to step down—”As governor of a state, you don’t get to choose” who you work with—Pritzker did note that he favors the adoption of term limits on legislative leadership positions, something that, if implemented, would affect Madigan sometime in the next decade.

Pritzker, holding himself out as an “independent Democrat” who knows business but has a heart, noted that he supports the city’s unified bid to attract Amazon’s second headquarters and its 50,000 jobs.

Unlike some of his primary rivals, he opposes a proposed “LaSalle Street tax” on financial trade, saying it’s damaging to Chicago’s status as a financial trading center, and he said taxing “carried interest” in the private-equity world ought to be done at the federal, and not state, level.

“I will focus on growing jobs,” Pritzker said. “I have the real experience to get things done.”

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