Gov. J.B. Pritzker begins his second term Jan. 9 emboldened by a decisive reelection victory, a slew of wins in November by Democratic candidates he helped fund and a series of legislative successes that formed the foundation of his bid for another four years in Springfield.
With his party achieving a historic 78-40 edge over Republicans in the Illinois House in the new term and a 40-19 advantage in the Senate, expectations will be high for the billionaire entrepreneur and Hyatt Hotels heir to continue racking up victories, though he laid out few specific plans during the campaign.
While he can count many first-term successes, Pritzker was chastened by the resounding defeat of what was intended to be the signature accomplishment: a state constitutional amendment to shift from a flat-rate income tax to a system where higher earners are taxed at higher rates.
And despite his efforts to downplay talk of his future ambitions, he remains surrounded by speculation that he’s eyeing a White House run in 2024, something he’s publicly ruled out as long as President Joe Biden intends to seek another term. Still, until that door is fully closed, many will judge his actions in that light.
The contours of Pritzker’s second-term agenda should become more clear when he addresses the crowd at his inauguration and when he makes his budget proposal to lawmakers in mid-February. But while offering few specifics, the governor told the Tribune in an interview in late December that it all begins with continuing to stabilize the state’s long-shaky finances.
“That’s something that requires tending every year,” Pritzker said. “It’s not easy in Illinois because there have been structural challenges.”
Those include pension costs that crowd out other areas of state spending and a projected return of budget deficits of the sort that long plagued the state.
“We’re overcoming those structural challenges. … It’s going to take more work, but I am confident that we will get where we need to be,” Pritzker said.
Pritzker said he intends to make improving education, from early childhood through college, and expanding access to child care major priorities of the coming term. That includes proposals to make public colleges tuition-free for students whose families earn at or below the median income and to raise the income cutoff for families to qualify state child care assistance. He also wants to expand the availability of child care statewide and of mental health and substance abuse treatment, particularly downstate.
Those kinds of efforts hinge on whether the state can continue on its current course of fiscal prudence, Pritzker said, a path that’s been smoothed by revenues that continue to outperform expectations.
“If we can continue to run surpluses, then surpluses no longer become an extraordinary item,” he said. “Surpluses become a regular part of a budget that allows you either to invest in education or to cut taxes or to invest in maintaining human services in Illinois.”
Pritzker, however, wouldn’t commit to providing during his second term the level of additional money advocates have said is necessary each year to meet the state’s funding target for elementary and secondary schools.
Under Pritzker, the state has met its obligation to increase school funding by at least $350 million annually except for one year during the pandemic. But by some estimates, it would take annual increases of $1 billion to fully fund schools under a new formula signed by Pritzker’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Likewise, Pritzker acknowledged the need to address the high burden of real estate taxes on Illinois residents, one of the state’s most vexing issues and one closely tied to education funding as local school districts make up the largest share of homeowners’ property tax bills.
But Pritzker put the onus to deliver relief largely on local governments, which levy property taxes and receive the revenue, by pointing to increases in state funding for schools and local governments during his first term, as well as spending on infrastructure under his Rebuild Illinois capital construction plan.
“Local governments have the ability to do it right now — and should,” Pritzker said.
The lack of a sweeping agenda heading into a second term is both a reflection of the way Pritzker ran his reelection campaign and his first-term experiences as a rookie politician, said John Shaw, director of Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.
“The governor ran a pretty disciplined and, of course, well-funded campaign in 2022 that was largely focused on defending his record, without sketching out much of a vision for a second term,” Shaw said. “This has a mixed effect. On the one hand, it gives him a lot of flexibility about how to go forward but also makes it hard for him to argue that he has a particular policy mandate.”
Pritzker also saw during his first term that he was more successful in “working the system” to accomplish goals like balancing the budget, approving an infrastructure plan, raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana than he was at “changing the system,” as evidenced by the failure of the graduated income tax proposal, Shaw said.
“As he pulls back from those experiences, does he say, ‘Look … I tried big systemic, structural change, and it didn’t work out very well,’ “ while noting that a more incremental approached worked, Shaw said.
With an even larger Democratic majority in the House, Pritzker may decide to “just work within the system,” he said.
Another factor that could quickly alter the trajectory of Pritzker’s second term is Biden’s decision on whether to seek a second term, which the president has said he expects to make in early 2023.
“I would imagine that the governor, like several other governors, when he looks in the mirror still sees a president,” said Brian Gaines, a professor of state politics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “And if he’s thinking about national politics, I think he runs things a little differently than if he’s just thinking, ‘I own Springfield, and I’m going to keep Springfield in good shape.’ ”
If Biden bows out and Pritzker looks to get into the race, he’ll likely seek a signature issue to help propel himself onto the national stage, Gaines said. It’s unclear at this point what would distinguish Pritzker in a crowded Democratic primary field that’s likely to include some other governors, he said.
Trying to play up his efforts to clean up Illinois’ financial mess, for example, would invite scrutiny of the state’s still severely underfunded public pensions, which with nearly $140 billion in unfunded liabilities are among the worst in the country, Gaines said.
While Pritzker achieved his first-term goal of getting legislation passed to abolish cash bail — although a Kankakee County judge last week ruled that provision unconstitutional. But the just-completed campaign showed the governor could be forced to play defense if he focuses on criminal justice reform — a challenge that would be even bigger if problems arise with the new policy, Gaines said.
Whatever plans Pritzker is making, either to cement his legacy in Illinois or propel his next step, unexpected events and factors outside of his control will play a large part in shaping the next four years — as the COVID-19 pandemic displayed in an “exceptional” way, Gaines said.
“He didn’t campaign on managing COVID the first time,” Gaines said.
A looming challenge that could undermine some of the fiscal progress Pritzker made during his first term is the potential for significant economic slowdown or recession in 2023.
The governor deserves credit for that progress and for working with the legislature to allocate the state’s roughly $8.1 federal coronavirus relief money in ways that will not “create an obvious cliff” when the funding runs out, said Laurence Msall, president of The Civic Federation, a nonpartisan budget watchdog.
“But there’s no guarantee that just staying pat is going to be enough,” Msall said.
Actions like paying off old debts without major tax increases are positive steps, but more needs to be done on the intertwined issues of public pensions and property taxes, Msall said.
“I don’t think those long-term issues are going away,” he said.
Pritzker’s ability to tackle those problems will depend in large part on his continued ability to work with the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly, Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside.
He has, by and large, avoided the conflicts with legislative leaders in his own party that hampered the ability of his two most recent Democratic predecessors, Pat Quinn and Rod Blagojevich, to get things done.
Both Harmon and Welch declined requests to discuss the governor’s second-term agenda.
Across the aisle, Pritzker will face new Republican leaders in the House and Senate after a shake-up in the wake of a disappointing November election for the GOP.
During the campaign, the governor criticized Republicans for opposing many of the steps he and Democrats in the legislature have taken to improve the state’s finances, though some GOP lawmakers did support his first budget.
“I am always looking to reach bipartisan agreement, and when you reach out and … essentially have the other party say, ‘Talk to the hand’ … it’s hard to get bipartisan consensus,” he told the Tribune.
How those dynamics may change under the new Republican leadership of John Curran of Downers Grove in the Senate and Tony McCombie of Savanna in the House remains to be seen.
Curran was unavailable for comment.
McCombie, who’s been in the House since 2017, said she’s starting her new position with “a clean slate.”
She pointed to a recent bipartisan deal to finish paying off debt in the state’s pandemic-depleted unemployment insurance trust fund as evidence that the parties can work together.
McCombie acknowledged that her initial optimism over Pritzker’s willingness to work with Republicans when he first took office diminished over the past four years.
“I want to be hopeful again, and I think it’s important to have an open mind,” she said. “But … I don’t know what his agenda is or where he’s going. But I certainly want to be a part of the conversation.”
Already, though, McCombie finds herself in conflict with one of Pritzker’s top goals for the opening months of his new term: a ban on certain semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. The governor has said he wants such a measure passed through both chambers and on his desk before the anniversary of the mass shooting at the Highland Park Fourth of July parade.
At a mid-December hearing on a gun ban proposal from House Democrats that Pritzker has endorsed, McCombie said the measure “is not going to address the root causes of violence” and would “ultimately leave our neighborhoods, our communities and women across Illinois vulnerable to be unprotected and unfortunately victimized.”
It’s uncertain whether Democrats will be able to push the measure through in the lame-duck session scheduled to begin Jan. 4, when they’re also expected to take up measures to strengthen protections for patients seeking abortions in Illinois and health care providers in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Pritzker has made defending abortion access in the state another second-term priority but has yet to provide specifics of what additional steps should be taken in a state that already enshrines those services as a “fundamental right” under state law.
He has said his goals include making sure providers are able to meet the demand from the influx of patients coming from states that have banned or restricted the procedure and protecting patients and providers from legal liability in those states.
“We want to make sure that everybody who needs to exercise their reproductive rights can do so,” he said. “So those are not small things to do, but they’re complex.”
Like any second-term governor, Pritzker also will be faced with making sure the changes made during his first term, such as efforts to diversify the marijuana industry and move toward carbon-free energy, are implemented properly.
“We accomplished an awful lot over the last four years,” Pritzker said. “Quite a bit of change took place for the better for our state, positive change, and much of that is not just a one-time or one-year advancement for Illinois, but something that we need to maintain going forward.”