SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s annual budget address on Wednesday sang the virtues of one state constitutional amendment and dismissed the wisdom of a commonly suggested overhaul.
The first-term governor used the speech on the Illinois House floor to pitch the graduated income tax — on the ballot this November as a proposed amendment to the Illinois Constitution — tying the mainstay of his policy agenda to a $1.4 billion “reserve” that could be collected and spent if voters approve the change.
Pritzker, a licensed attorney, also served up his own legal analysis of proposals to amend the Illinois Constitution’s pension clause, which was ruled airtight by the Illinois Supreme Court in a 2015 decision. That unanimous ruling tossed a pension-reform bill signed into law in 2013.
“The idea that all of this can be fixed with a single silver bullet ignores the protracted legal battle that will ultimately run headlong into the contracts clause of the U.S. Constitution,” Pritzker said. “You will spend years in that protracted legal battle, and when you’re done, you will have simply kicked the can down the road, made another broken promise to taxpayers and left them with higher tax bills.”
Two of Illinois Supreme Court justices were on hand to watch and hear the speech. Robed and sitting at the front of the chamber, Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne M. Burke and Justice Thomas L. Kilbride listened as the governor detailed his $42 billion budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts June 30, 2020.
Throughout his 40-minute speech, Pritzker touched on sources of revenue spanning from recreational adult-use cannabis to sports betting and lingered on areas of spending, including education and child welfare.
“If the graduated tax rates do take effect, this budget proposal takes major steps to stabilize our fiscal condition and build on the historic investments and improvements we’ve made across the board to better serve the people of our state,” Pritzker said.
Without the revenue levied from a higher tax on higher thresholds of income, he said, “our budget nevertheless continues our progress, although at a much slower pace than I think we require to get ourselves out of the hole previous administrations have dug for us.”
The two justices mostly watched silently, hands folded in their laps and arms crossed, when the chamber applauded certain claims made by Pritzker — including his remarks on changes to pension law.
The two did cheer when Pritzker criticized notions made by a small number of southern Illinois lawmakers that Chicago’s secession from the rest of the state would alleviate downstate economic challenges.
“I like [Pritzker’s] positive mental attitude of not being insurmountable, you know we are all on this together, and every division and every branch have to work together to get things done,” Burke said in an interview with the Daily Law Bulletin following the speech. “We all have issues, with all our branches of government and funding for them, but it sounds like he’s going to make it work, and he did last year, and I think that he will continue to do so, so I think we’re in a good place.”
While she did not react as Pritzker spoke about it, Burke said she supports increases in spending on child welfare and education.
“I especially like the idea of helping the most vulnerable people in society,” said Burke, who in 1994 was appointed by then-Gov. Jim Edgar as his office’s special counsel for child welfare services. Burke and her husband, Chicago 14th Ward Ald. Edward M. Burke, are foster parents to an adult son.
Pritzker’s proposed budget includes a $147 million boost in funding for the Department of Children & Family Services. The proposed increase is earmarked for the hiring of an additional 123 employees and the opening of a new simulation lab to train investigators on finding signs of abuse and neglect.
Burke also said she appreciated Pritzker’s focus on increased education funding.
If the constitutional amendment passes to allow for a new income tax structure, evidence-based funding of elementary and secondary education will increase to $353 million. Without the passage of the amendment, that number will drop to $200 million.
Public universities would receive an additional $130.8 million in general revenue funding under the modified tax structure. Without it, funding will not change from the previous fiscal year.
While Pritzker did not emphasize criminal justice funding during the speech, his budget incorporates reforms he hinted at during his state of the state address last month.
Funding for the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority will increase by $361,400, regardless of the tax structure. The agency’s Restore, Reinvest and Renew Program will also receive an additional $35 million. The R3 program was created under the cannabis legalization law. The program provides grant funding to “support economic development, provide violence prevention and reentry services, and offer youth development and civil legal aid to individuals in these eligible areas,” according to a press release.
“Fully funding public safety means a life saved, a crime solved and a justice system that is more equitable and fair,” Pritzker said.
The proposed budget does not increase total general revenue funding for the judiciary or the attorney general’s office.
Despite the flat funding, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Y. Raoul, who also was in attendance for Wednesday’s speech, said he thought Pritzker “hit a great chord” on fiscal responsibility and government efficiency.
“There was a belief under the previous administration that you couldn’t do that, but you can be fiscally responsible and invest in the citizens, particularly the vulnerable citizens of the state of Illinois at the same time,” Raoul said. “Yeah, we have problems, we certainly have problems that are undeniable, but we can do something about that to make our state better for the citizenry.”