Gov. J.B. Pritzker stresses education in $49.6 billion budget proposal while blasting a ‘virulent form of nationalism’ in national schools debate newstrendslive

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker stressed additional funding for education in his $49.6 million budget proposal Wednesday while also using the occasion to blast “a virulent form of nationalism” that he said has infected the national debate over school curricula and the content of library shelves.

“There is a virulent strain of nationalism plaguing our nation, led by demagogues who are pushing censorship, with a particular attack right now on school board members and library trustees,” said Pritzker, who is often speculated to have White House aspirations.

“It’s an ideological battle by the right wing, hiding behind a claim that they would protect our children, but whose real intention is to marginalize people and ideas they don’t like. This has been done in the past, and it doesn’t stop with just snuffing out ideas.”

“Our nation,” Pritzker said, “has a great history, and much to be proud of. I want my children to learn that history. But I don’t want them to be lied to. I want them to learn our true history, warts and all. Illinois’ young people shouldn’t be kept from learning about the realities of our world. 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.”

Pritzker’s combined budget and State of the State address in the Illinois House was his first speech to a full joint session of the two chambers of the General Assembly since before the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, and he touted the “remarkable” progress made toward stabilizing the state’s finances during his first term despite the uncertainties brought on by COVID-19.

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

The governor’s budget proposal, which accounts for projections of a mild recession in the coming months, doesn’t include any major tax or fee increases or significant spending cuts.

While not once using the words “Republican” or “Democrat” and avoiding contentious issues like his efforts to end cash bail and ban high-powered semi-automatic weapons, Pritzker emphasized that it was his party that led the charge in improving the state’s financial outlook after the havoc caused by a two-year budget standoff under his predecessor, GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner.

“In the age old fight between happy warriors and misery’s carnival barkers, we’ve shown that if we resolve to do it, happy warriors win every time. And we are winning,” Pritzker said, employing a label he frequently slaps on Republicans.

“You, the majority of the General Assembly, are succeeding. You, the majority of the people of Illinois who elected the General Assembly, the constitutional officers, and me, are succeeding. Together, we’ve slogged through the tough times and are making the responsible decisions for our future,” he said.

Pritzker said his continuing efforts to try to rebuild a state social service safety net “will finally have reversed the hollowing out that occurred in human services under the previous administration if we are able to hire up enough staff in this tight labor market. We are cautiously optimistic that we can do so.”

Pritzker, who made advocacy of abortion rights a main plank in his reelection bid against Republican Darren Bailey, an abortion opponent, also announced creation of a “hot line” to assist women from across the country to obtain the procedure in Illinois.

“From transportation and lodging to insurance coverage options, the hotline will help patients traverse a complex and overwhelmed system,” he said, adding that he was proposing $5 million for training to address the shortage of reproductive health care workers.

“Let’s not pull punches. This is the result of a national conservative crusade to legislate against the most intimate matters of a woman’s basic health care,” he said.

“I’m sure there are some elected officials who would like us to stop talking about abortion. Well, too bad. There are women in this country right now who are facing untold mental and physical anguish because of the fall of Roe v. Wade,” he said. “Here in Illinois, women know their rights are protected, but that doesn’t take away our obligation as Americans to speak up for the rest of the nation.”

If adopted by the Democratic-controlled legislature, Pritzker’s plan for the budget year that begins July 1 would mark a nearly 8% increase over the $46 billion budget approved last spring.

Lawmakers have since approved nearly $4 billion in additional spending for the current year based on higher than anticipated revenue, meaning that under Pritzker’s plan, state spending would actually decrease by about $350 million next year.

The centerpiece of the plan is a $250 million package aimed at giving a boost to the youngest Illinois residents and their families, including $75 million to add 5,000 slots to existing state funded preschool programs that currently serve about 94,000 children. The governor has called for adding a total of 20,000 slots over four years in programs that prioritize placement of children at risk of academic failure.

Pritzker implored lawmakers to join him in supporting the plan, dubbed “Smart Start Illinois,” which he called a “long-term investment that has the greatest return for taxpayers with the most positive social and economic impact I have ever come to you with.”

“It will make our state the best place in the nation to raise young children,” Pritzker said.

The governor campaigned on making public higher education tuition-free for families who earn at or below median income, and to that end proposes increasing funding for state grants by $100 million.

That should be enough to make community college tuition-free for all those families, but would only cover about 40% of those attending four-year schools, according to the governor’s office.

In all, education, from preschool through college, makes up roughly a quarter of Pritzker’s proposed spending for the coming year from the state’s general fund, which covers most day-to-day operations.

Of that, $10.3 billion would go to preschool through high school, which includes a $350 million increase for elementary and secondary schools as required under a funding plan signed into law by Rauner. Advocates have been pushing for even larger increases — up to $1 billion a year — to meet the state’s funding target.

Higher education would see an increase of more than $200 million, bringing total state funding to nearly $2.5 billion. In addition to the additional funding for tuition grants, public universities and community colleges would receive $100 million more for operations, a 7% increase, which the Pritzker administration said is the largest boost in two decades.

As part of his attack on censorship, Pritzker said investments in education are “meaningless if we become a nation that bans books from school libraries about racism suffered by (baseball heroes) 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.”

Spending outside education would remain relatively flat, though the plan includes additional money to hire Illinois State Police troopers and prison workers, aid the homeless, and help local police departments purchase body cameras and retain officers.

Acknowledging failures on the part of local governments to end food deserts, Pritzker announced the creation of a $20 million Illinois Grocery Initiative to assist municipalities and independent grocers to open or expand stores in underserved rural and urban areas.

“Government at the state and local level has tried hard to attract big retail food chains to neighborhoods that need them with tax incentives and flashy ribbon cutting ceremonies,” he said. “But after the cameras leave, often so do the commercial chains — leaving poorer rural and urban communities high and dry.”

Pritzker also is proposing another $30 million for a state-run violent crime witness protection program, similar to a proposal he made last year for the current budget. However, figures provided by the Illinois comptroller’s office earlier this month show the state has spent only about $67,000 of the $30 million set aside for this fiscal year. The money has been spent on employer-related expenses like insurance and office equipment.

ICJIA said earlier this month that the agency was still in the process of establishing the guidelines for the program and that no law enforcement agencies have applied for the funding.

Pearson reported from Chicago.

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