Pre-K expansion, free college for working class among Pritzker budget highlights

SPRINGFIELD — Taking full advantage of robust post-pandemic tax revenues, Gov. J.B. Pritzker proposed more than $1.2 billion in new education spending as part of his $49.6 billion spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1. 

Pritzker unveiled the plan in his annual combined State of the State and budget address, delivered to lawmakers in the Illinois House chamber of the State Capitol on Wednesday afternoon. 

Also related to education, Pritzker called out “a virulent strain of nationalism plaguing our nation” that has turned its focus to banning books and policing what children are taught in school, saying that he wants Illinois students “to learn our true history, warts and all.”

The governor’s plans for new investments in education stretch from a child’s early years through college, starting with $250 million in new spending to expand access to early childhood education.

The outlay is expected to create 5,000 new pre-K spots for low-income children and is considered a down payment on a multi-year plan, dubbed “Smart Start Illinois,” aimed at providing every child with access to pre-K.

“Thanks to our stronger fiscal standing, we can afford to do this, and as every provider, teacher, and parent in this state knows, we can’t afford to wait,” Pritzker said.

At the other end of the spectrum, Pritzker called for increasing funding for the Monetary Assistance Program (MAP), a state-funded, need-based grant awarded to Illinois college students, by $100 million.

This investment, administration officials say, coupled with federal Pell grants, would make community college free to nearly all Illinois residents at or below median income level. More than 40% of working class public university students would also have their tuition and fees covered via this combination. 

Among the governor’s guests in the gallery was Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe, who came to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1989 in pursuit of an education. He highlighted Mwilambwe, who received financial assistance while attending Illinois State University, as an example of the possibilities when supporting financial assistance for college.

Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe and state Rep. Sharon Chung, D-Bloomington, react to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s State of the State and budget address.

“He became a U.S. citizen in 2008, and after a career as a college administrator, Mboka was elected Mayor of Bloomington — the first African American ever to hold that position,” Pritzker said to applause in the room.

Pritzker later said that Mwilambwe “received a tuition waiver from this welcoming state and has returned it tenfold as Bloomington’s mayor.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker arrives with first lady M.K. Pritzker to deliver his combined budget and State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly on Wednesday at the Illinois State Capitol.


An additional $100 million, or a 7% increase, would also be allocated to the state’s public universities and community colleges for operating costs, the largest increase in two decades and a stunning reversal of fortune from just six years ago, when several public universities were coming apart at the seams during the more than two-year state budget impasse. 

As he has in every budget, Pritzker also included the full annual $350 million increase for K-12 education funding called for under the evidence-based formula law enacted in 2018. 

Pritzker also proposed $70 million toward improving the teacher pipeline. The funds will be allocated to 170 school districts experiencing hurdles in hiring and retaining teachers. They could be used for incentives like signing bonuses, housing stipends or help with student loans. 

Universal pre-K, free college and other lofty goals had been hinted at by Pritzker last year during his campaign for a second term. He reiterated this vision in his second inaugural address delivered last month.

But it was always with a caveat that they would only be done so long as the state could continue to balance its books.

They have and then some, according to administration officials, who revised their revenue projection for the current fiscal year up an additional $1.24 billion from a November estimate that already had already projected revenues to be $3.7 billion higher than previously expected. This brings projected general fund revenues to $51.4 billion this year, a record. 

Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe was highlighted in Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s state budget address to lawmakers at the Illinois Capitol on Wednesday.

Projections for the fiscal year starting July 1 have been revised up $2.34 billion, bringing expected revenues to just under $50 billion. 

This leaves the projected surplus for the next fiscal year at $303 million, though about $138 million of that is expected to be transferred to the state’s “rainy day” fund. 

“Fiscal responsibility isn’t easy, nor is it a one-time fix,” Pritzker said Wednesday. “It’s an annual effort that requires persistence. It requires conservative revenue estimates, as all of my budget proposals have.”

“But when done right, consistent balanced budgets strengthen the institutions our residents rely upon, creates new opportunities for success, and makes life easier for the people of Illinois,” he said. 

Though chronically running deficits for much of this millennium, Illinois has state has consistently exceeded conservative revenue projections in the years following the COVID-19 pandemic.

This has allowed lawmakers to pay down the state’s bill backlog, pump more money into pensions and stash cash away in the “rainy day” fund. 

Increased appropriations are expected in several key areas of the budget, which includes $12.8 billion for education, $9.9 billion for human services, $9 billion for healthcare and about $2.5 billion for public safety.

The proposal also fully funds the $9.8 billion contribution to the state’s pension system, which faces an unfunded liability of just under $140 billion.

Pritzker has also proposed contributing another $200 million payment towards pensions utilizing surplus revenue from this fiscal year. 

The governor also promised funds toward rebuilding the state’s social service safety net, violence prevention initiatives and towards fighting poverty and homelessness. 

Gov. Pritzker speaks to a joint session of the General Assembly to give his State of the State and budget address. 

Erin Henkel

However, Pritzker’s main focus was education.

And this extended beyond the resources he hopes to allocate in the coming year’s budget, saying that “it’s all meaningless if we become a nation that bans books from school libraries about racism suffered by Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron, and tells kids they can’t talk about being gay, and signals to Black and Brown people and Asian Americans and Jews and Muslims that our authentic stories can’t be told.”

This was partially in reference to various culture war battles being waged by conservatives like Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

Last year, DeSantis signed legislation that critics have labeled the “Don’t Say Gay” law. It bans lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade as well as material that is not deemed age-appropriate.

DeSantis also spoke out against the curriculum of an Advanced Placement Black History course that allegedly addressed “critical race theory,” which examines the role race plays in shaping the country’s laws, politics and social movements. The nonprofit College Board, which oversees the AP program nationwide, subsequently revised the final framework of the curriculum, which Pritzker dismissed as “a weak attempt to please extremists.”

DeSantis is viewed by many as a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. Pritzker has been discussed as a possible Democratic candidate should President Joe Biden forgo a run for reelection.

“Illinois’ young people shouldn’t be kept from learning about the realities of our world,” Pritzker said. “I want them to become critical thinkers, exposed to ideas that they disagree with, proud of what our nation has overcome, and thoughtful about what comes next.”

Though Pritzker maintained a statewide focus in his 50-minute address, there were some nods to downstate. He name-dropped chocolate maker Ferrero and electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian Automotive, two companies with a major presence in Bloomington-Normal, when talking about businesses expanding in or moving to Illinois.

Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe stands and waves as he is recognized by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. 

Erin Henkel

The budget also includes $2.8 million in funding for the Illinois State Police’s Decatur forensic lab, which will fund 22 new positions and the necessary equipment to enhance the property crimes forensic analysis capabilities and DNA analysis services offered.

Pritzker’s proposed budget is just the kick off of the annual process. Lawmakers will soon begin hearings and, eventually, craft a plan before adjourning in May. 

Contact Brenden Moore at Follow him on Twitter: @brendenmoore13

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

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February 15, 2023 at 07:33PM

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