Pritzker shifts from bold to balance in budget — after voters shifted gears on him

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivers a virtual budget and State of the State address from the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield on Wednesday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivers a virtual budget and State of the State address from the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield on Wednesday. | Screen image from Facebook recording.

It’s a live-to-fight-another-day budget, a budget that if adopted should allow state government to survive until next year, which not coincidentally will be an election year, when we can do it all over again.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker ran for office on a plan to convert Illinois to a graduated income tax that he touted as the cure to the state’s economic doldrums.

Voters overwhelmingly elected Pritzker, then two years later, they overwhelmingly rejected his income tax plan, a head-spinning course reversal that that has put the governor in a tricky position.

That brings us to Wednesday, when Pritzker — amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic now entering its second year — presented a budget for the new fiscal year that looks very much like the budgets Illinois governors have been presenting for decades.

It’s a live-to-fight-another-day budget, a budget that if adopted should allow state government to survive until next year, which not coincidentally will be an election year, when we can do it all over again.

It’s a budget that doesn’t fix the state’s structural deficit — the gap between what the state takes in and what it spends — but doesn’t seem to make it much worse either.

The best spin a senior state budget official could offer reporters is that it puts Illinois “on a course to close the structural deficit going forward,” meaning maybe they can get a start on fixing things next year.

It’s also a budget that doesn’t keep the barely three-year-old promise to pump an extra $350 million each year into the state’s new K-12 education formula, but just might be enough for schools to avoid losing ground because of expected federal funding to cover pandemic expenses.

And it’s a budget that doesn’t do anything about the state’s always lurking problem of unfunded pensions.

Maybe this is the best we can hope for in Illinois, especially right now during the pandemic and the economic strife that comes with it. Maybe this is all the people of Illinois really want in the end, a state government that manages to get by and doesn’t keep them from doing so.

Pritzker made clear that’s not all that he wants.

“I had bolder plans for our state budget than what I am going to present to you today. It would be a lie to suggest otherwise. But as all our families have had to make hard choices over the last year, so too does state government,” he said.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivers a virtual budget and State of the State address from the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield on Wednesday.
Screen image from Facebook recording
Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivers a virtual budget and State of the State address from the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield on Wednesday.

“And right now, we need to pass a balanced budget that finds the right equilibrium between tightening our belts and preventing more hardships for Illinoisans already carrying a heavy load.”

Pritzker’s budget immediately came under attack from both the right and the left, which suggests some measure of equilibrium.

Republicans accused him of trying to punish the business community with his plan to eliminate $932 million a year in corporate tax breaks.

Progressive activists complained he wasn’t acting boldly enough to find additional revenue sources. For them, his “flat spending” is a step backward.

Pritzker referred to his tax break elimination proposals as “closing corporate loopholes,” including a couple that he opened himself just two years ago as a peace offering to Republican legislators and as a much-needed signal of encouragement to the business community.

“Tax increases” are the words the business community is using to describe his latest proposal.

They’re both right. Closing corporate loopholes means higher taxes for somebody.

I still believe the graduated income tax would have been the right approach, not that it would have solved all the problems.

But the people have spoken, and this obviously would not be a good time for a general tax increase, at least not from a political standpoint. For those who want to make deep cuts, we saw where that gets us under Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner — and where it got Rauner.

Democrat J.B. Pritzker, left, and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, right, square off in a debate in 2018.
Screen image.
Democrat J.B. Pritzker, left, and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, right, square off in a debate in 2018.

Pritzker’s budget presentation, made to an online audience from a building at the State Fairgrounds that a century ago served as a treatment facility for victims of the Spanish Flu pandemic, spoke in many ways to survival, ours and his.

This past year of sacrifice in the interest of saving lives — of closed businesses and closed schools and children’s sports programs — has come at a cost to Pritzker’s personal popularity.

People want to blame someone for their unhappiness, and some choose to blame Pritzker.

In many ways, the attacks on Pritzker have mirrored the national fight over how to respond to COVID-19, and in the end, there’s no question in my mind that our governor took a smarter approach than our former president.

Pritzker’s budget should also allow the state to survive another year, but by this time next year, let’s hope he’s planning boldly again.

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February 17, 2021 at 05:04PM

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