In ‘stronger’ political position, Pritzker enters second term with ‘flexibility’ on policy agenda

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SPRINGFIELD — When the clock strikes noon on Monday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker will be sworn in for his second four-year term in Springfield. 

After soundly defeating Republican nominee Darren Bailey and helping Democrats win up and down the ticket in 2022, Pritzker will enter the term as powerful as he’s ever been.

With Democrats expanding their supermajority to a 78-40 advantage over Republicans in the House and maintaining a 40-19 edge in the Senate, Pritzker will have more allies in the Capitol seeking to enact a progressive policy agenda. 



Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker holds a post-election press conference at the Marriott Marquis on Nov. 9.



E. JASON WAMBSGANS, CHICAGO TRIBUNE


With this dynamic, not to mention speculation that he could be eyeing a 2024 presidential run should President Joe Biden step aside, all eyes are on the course Pritzker seeks to chart as he sets course in this second term. 

Pritzker, asked by Lee Enterprises at a press conference Thursday what he hopes to accomplish in the next four years, said the first priority isn’t sexy but is perhaps the most important: balancing the state’s budget.

“We’ve got to balance the budget,” Pritzker said. “And the legislators that stand behind me know how hard that is to do. But we’ve been doing it, and we’ve been running surpluses, which have allowed us to pay off debt and really lift up the economic circumstances, the fiscal circumstances of the state.”



Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker looks to supporters after he defeated GOP challenger Darren Bailey on Nov. 8 in Chicago. 



NAM Y. HUH, ASSOCIATED PRESS


“And then you can do things like expand early childhood education, or, as we are doing, working toward providing free college for anybody that’s at or below median income level in the state of Illinois,” Pritzker said.

Indeed, the state has entered a period of relative budget stability after several decades of structural deficits and credit rating downgrades that left it in the worst fiscal position of any state in the country. 

A mix of federal COVID-19 stimulus funds and robust tax revenues spurred by a strong economy have helped the state turn around the fiscal ship. 

The state’s projected budget surplus at the end of this fiscal year, for instance, is anywhere between $3.7 billion to $4.9 billion, according to two government reports.



Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and Gov. JB Pritzker enter Manny’s Deli in Chicago, Tuesday, June 28. 



KEVIN TANAKA, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES VIA AP


The five-year budgetary forecast from the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget shows trouble ahead. In fiscal year 2024, GOMB projects a $357 million surplus. But it projects deficits of $384 million in 2025, $625 million in 2026, $567 million in 2027 and $708 million in 2028.

However, even those numbers represent major progress. Just three years ago, deficits in 2024 and 2025 were projected north of $3 billion. 

This improving financial picture coupled with more than a half-dozen credit rating increases gives Pritzker a story to tell — and something to protect — as he enters his second term.

“I think the one issue that he wants to embrace with a vengeance is Illinois’ fiscal comeback,” said John Shaw, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “He’s obviously happy with the multiple credit upgrades, the fact that the kind of chaos of the Rauner years ended and there’s kind of a modicum of fiscal stability. So, he’s embracing that fully.”



Shaw



A.E. Fletcher Photography


When asked about second-term priorities, Pritzker has always started with the budget. If there is money to work with, it could allow for more funding in crucial areas such as education, public safety and social services. 

Shaw said that by virtue of winning reelection largely by defending what he’s already done and not necessarily laying out a second term agenda, Pritzker maintains “flexibility” but cannot necessarily claim a mandate for any particular policy position. 

But, whatever he seeks to do, he may have an easier time given the strengthened Democratic majorities in the legislature.

And, not to be overlooked, Pritzker no longer has to deal with other barriers, such as former House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, who was long known to frustrate legislative agendas of governors in both parties.

Pritzker also seized control of the state’s Democratic Party last year, giving him more influence over the party than a Democratic governor has had in decades. 

The governor is in a “much stronger political situation” now than when he took office, said Kent Redfield, a retired professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. 

“Pritzker’s is in a pretty good fiscal situation right now, he’s in a strong political situation right now,” Redfield said. “That doesn’t mean the wheels can’t come off all of this, but he’s well-positioned — if he doesn’t decide to waste the next two years running for president — to solidify a lot of things in terms of state government and to solve some problems.”

Though he has not laid out an agenda, Pritzker has dropped some hints, mentioning his desire to offer free college to those earning the median income or below.

This could be done by further increasing support of the Monetary Assistance Program (MAP), a state-funded, need-based grant awarded to Illinois college students, along with federal Pell grants.

He has also mentioned increasing support for childcare. Currently, the state offers childcare assistance for families at up to 225% the federal poverty level. Pritzker indicated he would like to increase that to 300%.

And in every budget, Pritzker has included the $350 million increase to K-12 education funding called for under the evidence-based formula law enacted in 2018. This is likely to continue if funds are available. 

Pritzker may kick off his new term with two major bills to sign: an assault weapons ban and a reproductive health bill that would expand Illinois’ status as an island for abortion rights. 

Pritzker late Thursday was on the House floor as the abortion measure passed, congratulating its proponents. He then stayed to watch the debate over the assault weapons ban, a rare occurrence for a governor. 

The measures now go to the Illinois Senate.

State Sen. Doris Turner, D-Springfield, said that Pritzker and Democrats “did some bold things” the previous few years, including the massive overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system known as the SAFE-T Act. 

The fact that Illinois Democrats were not punished at the polls as many expected, Turner said, is “a validation that we continue along that path” of bold policy action in the new term. 

“I think that we are at a place now where people feel comfortable being their own authentic self and have not really been looking so much at the political ramifications of things, but how we can be bold in moving our state forward,” said Turner, who won a tight race. 

In the first term, Pritzker enjoyed many legislative successes, from the minimum wage increase to recreational marijuana legalization to a landmark clean energy law among others. 

His one major flop was the failure of the graduated income tax amendment on the ballot in 2020. He campaigned heavily on the issue in 2018 and spent millions on advertising supporting it. 

Shaw said he expects Pritzker to take this “tale of two approaches” as a lesson heading into the new term.

“I think he’s proved pretty adept at working the system and less adept at changing the system,” Shaw said. “And he’s obviously a smart man, so he realizes that maybe it makes a lot of sense, particularly when you have strong Democratic majorities in the General Assembly, to work the system and see if he can kind of build on the accomplishments that he achieved in his first term.”

If Pritzker completes his second term, he will be the first Illinois governor to do so since former Gov. Jim Edgar, who served from 1991 to 1999.

Edgar’s successor, former Gov. George Ryan, under the cloud of investigation, did not run for reelection. Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached halfway through his second term and former Govs. Pat Quinn and Bruce Rauner were defeated in their attempts for a second full term.

If Pritzker does not finish his second term, many believe it will be for less nefarious reasons than his predecessors, but instead due to a presidential campaign.

Shaw said that “to have a strong record of fiscal accomplishment is a plus,” especially as a Democrat, running for higher office.



Gov. J.B. Pritzker, center, joins students Kaylee Sugimoto, left, and Braxton Myers for a selfie a during a rally on Wednesday, Nov. 2, at Illinois State University.



CLAY JACKSON, THE PANTAGRAPH


Redfield said Pritzker’s ability to govern Illinois, the nation’s sixth-largest state and the one that best reflects the demographics of the nation as a whole, could also be a selling point.

“You can run things, you can make things work, but you also are championing ideas that appeal to progressive as well as moderates,” Redfield said, explaining the argument Pritzker could use. 

Whether that is a possibility should be known soon as Biden is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks.

“I would just see what that State of the State (address) looks like,” Redfield said, referring to the speech the governor typically delivers to lawmakers in February. “Are there some things in there that really look like national dogwhistles or is it all pretty much just ‘we’re gonna make Illinois the best it can be,’ so to speak?”


Contact Brenden Moore at brenden.moore@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter: @brendenmoore13

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Region: Decatur,City: Decatur,Politics,Region: Central

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January 8, 2023 at 12:58AM

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