Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker pointedly used his State of the State address Wednesday to frame Illinois in a positive light thanks to the burst of laws passed during the first year of his administration.
“The last year has shown what we can do when we roll up our sleeves and work together to restore stability to our state,” he said. “I’m here to tell the carnival barkers, the doomsayers, the paid professional critics – the State of our State is growing stronger each day.”
Despite that sunny outlook, the string of politicians charged with felonies for crimes like bribery and embezzlement puts a cloud over the capitol, and all but forced Pritzker to make ethics reform a key part of his second-year agenda.
“It’s no longer enough to sit idle while under-the-table deals, extortion, or bribery persist. Protecting that culture or tolerating it is no longer acceptable. We must take urgent action to restore the public’s trust in our government. That’s why we need to pass real, lasting ethics reform this legislative session,” Pritzker said.
Specifically, the governor suggested banning lawmakers and local elected officials from simultaneously working as lobbyists, closing a revolving door that allows legislators to leave the General Assembly and then immediately begin lobbying their former colleagues, requiring officials to disclose more about their finances and to make public potential conflicts of interest.
“It’s clear that we must take significant steps within the coming weeks to restore confidence in state government. But let’s be clear: bad actors will always try to game the system and break the law,” House Speaker Michael Madigan said in a statement.
Madigan has said that he is not the focus of any federal investigation, despite the FBI having paid visits to some of his closest allies.
Pritzker’s speech received a generally positive reception from Republicans, and both Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin said they look forward to working with the governor.
But they both said the ethics plan he laid out had a glaring omission: Pritzker said nothing about changing how Illinois draws the legislative districts, such that Democrats won’t have total control over the map.
“We’re ... starting a process on the redistricting of legislative seats in the House and Senate, and also congressional seats. The power of these chambers lies with the person who draws the map,” Durkin said. “Redistricting reform will be probably the strongest way in which we can clean up this cesspool that has been created down here because of one-party rule.”
Pritzker also laid out a plan for beginning to trim property taxes, for the first time explicitly putting his weight behind the idea of allowing local voters to get rid of units of municipal government they deem redundant.
“With nearly 7,000 units of government in Illinois, it’s time to empower local taxpayers and voters to consolidate or eliminate them. These changes, along with our landmark pension reform that consolidated police and firefighter pensions, can make a serious dent in property taxes,” he said.
It’s a concept Pritzker’s predecessor, former Gov. Bruce Rauner, spent years attempting to win approval for, only to be stunted by the Democratic-controlled legislature.
Pritzker has been able to successfully get legislative buy-in for most of his priorities, though his second year could test whether he’ll be able to do the same with perennial sacred cows. Even if he’s able to persuade lawmakers to go along with paving the path to local government consolidation, that may not make as big a dent as promised, given that spending on schools is the primary driver of property taxes.
“Consolidation – it can help. It can help (with) more efficiency, it can help redundant areas of government, but the actual dollars that might be saved are probably less than people would like,” Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, said.
Pritzker also emphasized his desire to make the criminal justice system more fair by ending cash bail, and reducing or eliminating mandatory sentencing.
And environmental advocates cheered when he endorsed adopting legislation to move Illinois toward 100% renewable energy.
“Urgent action is needed — but let me be clear, the old ways of negotiating energy legislation are over. It’s time to put consumers and climate first. I’m not going to sign an energy bill written by the utility companies,” Pritkzer said.
Members of both parties rose to their feet at that – a sign that ComEd and Exelon may have lost the clout they’ve held in Springfield in recent years, now that they’re in the feds’ crosshairs.
“Exelon especially is the owner of the large nuclear fleet that is so critical to our overall energy portfolio. No one, I think, is suggesting that they shouldn’t be at the table. What is encouraging to me is that they won’t be the loudest voice in the room now,” Senate President Don Harmon said.
Pritzker barely touched on what we know to be his top priority: Getting voters to approve a constitutional amendment that clears the way for income to be taxed at a graduated rate.
It’s likely he’ll do that on Feb. 19 when he’ll present his budget plans to the General Assembly.
The governor’s remarks as prepared for delivery:
Speaker Madigan, President Harmon, Leader Durkin, Leader Brady, Lieutenant Governor Stratton, my fellow constitutional officers, members of the General Assembly, distinguished guests and people of Illinois -
I want to begin by thanking the First Lady of Illinois, my wife, MK - With quiet strength and with little fanfare, you’ve worked hard over the last year to make this state more inclusive and welcoming to all, from DuQuoin to Springfield to Chicago, caring about and advocating for some of our state’s most vulnerable people. I want to say thank you for making some important aspects of Illinois shine once again.
To now former Senate President John Cullerton: I want to express my heartfelt gratitude for your many years of service to our state. You have always fought for your constituents and for all the people of Illinois with a clear devotion, with a vision to advance this state as a national leader in healthcare, education and civil rights, and with a willingness to listen and seek compromise at just the right moments. John, you’ve brought kindness and humor in even the toughest days in the General Assembly, and everyone on both sides of the aisle in this chamber will miss you as you embark on a new chapter of your life with your beloved wife Pam, who has made so many personal sacrifices over the last 41 years, as many unsung heroic spouses do. On behalf of a grateful state, we thank you both.
And in turn, I look forward to working with our new Senate President, a friend and ally for more than a quarter century and a long-time champion of the Fair Tax amendment, Don Harmon.
My friends, it has been a little over a year since I was inaugurated Governor. I have a real abiding love for the work I do every day... and a deep respect for how fundamentally humbling it is to serve in this office.
Illinois is a state with a grand history of profound impact on our nation and our world. We’ve sent four transformative Presidents to the White House. We were the first state to ratify two of the most important amendments to the U.S. Constitution, one abolishing slavery and another granting women the right to vote. The first cell phone was invented here. So was the first television remote control and the first widely used internet browser.
What all these things have in common is that they were the product of the talented and forward-thinking people of our state.
Illinois is great because our people are great.
That’s why it’s been important to me as governor to listen - truly to hear people from across our state who come with passion and perspective that’s different than my own. Keeping an open door policy means that I’ve been rewarded with a wealth of constructive feedback, advice and help from Democrats and Republicans alike - an indication that perhaps, here in Illinois, we are not as divided in our values and goals as some would have you believe.
Our state has challenges. We inherited a mess that was years in the making, and it had bipartisan roots. On day one it was clear to me that we had a government infrastructure that had withered from neglect and a lack of public trust. At times, it seemed like even the most basic things - like getting a government-issued iPad to work - were hard to do.
But one thing I know in life is that if you want to make profound change in a broken system, you have to do the next good thing that needs to get done. Big problems become big problems when you let small problems sit.
Let me share one small example: The story of the Thompson Center flags.
Sometime last summer, a watchful Twitter citizen noticed that the flags flying outside the state government building in Chicago, the James R. Thompson Center, were hanging a bit haphazardly from their rods, dangling by their last threads.
I have to admit, I didn’t notice it. In fact no one among the 2,000 people working there seemed to notice it - maybe because you could spend all day noticing things dangling by their last threads in the Thompson Center if you tried.
So we did a little research and found that the flags used to be serviced by a small, fourth generation family-owned business in Chicago that has tended Illinois’ flags for a century’s worth of parades, state visits, and sports championships.
But during the last few years - you guessed it - the flag company stopped getting paid. Like so many other small businesses in Illinois that were caught up in the budget impasse, this company did their best, but the Thompson Center flags ended up falling into disrepair.
Once the dangling flags were brought to my attention, we contacted the company and heard their story. We immediately paid them what they were owed, and the next weekend they came with a huge ladder truck and fixed it so our state’s flags flew straight once again.
As it turns out, fixing those flags made people really happy. In fact it’s the most pleased Twitter has ever been with me. I think it’s because this simple story about a flag at the Thompson Center is a metaphor for where state government has been - and where it’s going. And it reminded me that - we have a choice about how we tell our story. We could spend our time reliving every past failure, every bygone insult and fight - or we could fix things and be ardent voices on behalf of an agenda of opportunity in the years ahead. The last year has shown what we can do when we roll up our sleeves and work together to restore stability to our state.
Those who would shout doom and gloom might be loud - using social media bots and paid hacks to advance their false notions - but they are not many. You see, we’re wresting the public conversation in Illinois back from people concerned with one thing and one thing only — predicting total disaster, spending hundreds of millions of dollars promoting it, and then doing everything in their power to make it happen.
I’m here to tell the carnival barkers, the doomsayers, the paid professional critics - the State of our State is growing stronger each day.
Don’t believe me? Consider these facts...
Today the Illinois economy supports 6.2 million jobs. This is the most jobs on record for our state, and we now have the lowest unemployment rate in history. Last year, for the first time in nearly 20 years, every major region in our state was growing simultaneously - and even more remarkably, communities in southern Illinois like Carbondale have led that growth. Over the past year, Illinois has reduced its unemployment rate more than ALL of the top twenty most populated states in the nation — and more than our Midwestern peers.
237 Illinois businesses from all over the state made Inc Magazine’s List of Fastest Growing Businesses in the Nation, including companies in Columbia and Rock Island, St. Charles and O’Fallon, Taylorville and Chicago.
Student applications to Illinois’ public universities increased last fall for the first time in many years. Illinois is the second-largest producer of computer science degrees in the nation, accounting for nearly 10 percent of all computer science degrees awarded in the entire United States.
Our great state has an awful lot that’s going right.
And just look at what a difference a year can make.
We passed a bipartisan, truly balanced budget on time, with renewed investments in job creation, cradle to career education, and physical and mental healthcare. Even the credit rating agencies and financial analysts described a “distinct improvement” in our fiscal stability, and investors took notice and lowered our state’s borrowing rate.
A balanced budget is an important accomplishment, but it’s more than just about fiscal discipline. It’s a moral document that reflects our values as a state.
Thirteen years ago, Bonnie Brackett and her family opened the doors on a new family business: Heartland Kids Early Learning Center in Marion, Illinois. Over the years, hundreds of Williamson County’s babies and toddlers have gone through her program, which is one of the top-ranked in the state.
But as with hundreds of childcare providers across Illinois and more than ten thousand parents, the budget crisis became Bonnie’s crisis and disrupted families across the area. At one point, Bonnie’s staff dropped to a low of 14 teachers from a high of 21.
Bonnie, one of only three childcare centers in Marion, almost had to close her doors.
But this year, with the increase in state funding for childcare that we announced in December, Bonnie is not only able to stay in business but has a plan for teacher training, rebuilding enrollment, classroom improvements, and even beginning the process of hiring more staff. Now, thanks to our bipartisan investments, dozens more parents in Marion can go to work, and Bonnie can get back to the business that matters most to her: caring for the children of Southern Illinois.
Bonnie Brackett is here today, and we want to thank her for all she does for her community, for our kids, and for our state.
For the first time in a decade, we passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill. Rebuild Illinois will create and support 500,000 jobs in the state as we fix our aging and crumbling roads and bridges, bring broadband to parts of the state that are internet deserts, as well as modernize our hospitals, our community centers, our state police facilities, our universities and colleges - all of the things that keep us going and growing.
Over the last several months I’ve had the pleasure of attending many local events celebrating the jobs and projects that Rebuild Illinois is bringing to our communities. Most times those events are attended by legislators and mayors and local officials of both political parties, and it’s clear that when we stand together in front of the public and talk about what we are doing together to literally rebuild bridges and roads and childcare centers and schools - we restore a little bit of the public’s trust that has been lost in government institutions at all levels in the past few decades.
Rebuild Illinois is about more than just roads, bridges and universities; it’s about jobs: middle class careers with wages and benefits, the kind of jobs that help you raise a family. And together, we did more to make these jobs more inclusive and diverse, by investing in the Illinois Works program to recruit new construction apprentices and set strong goals for our public works projects to include diverse employees.
With me today is Reggie Marizetts Junior, a first-year apprentice with Laborers’ Local 165 in Peoria. Reggie fell in love with hands-on work early in his life, and it’s his apprenticeship where he is learning all the skills to succeed not just now, but for decades to come. Reggie intends to become a full-time journeyman and later to pursue his lifelong dream: opening a father-son construction company with his dad. Reggie, please stand so we can cheer for your hard work and your bright future.
Over the next six years, in addition to our expansion of apprenticeships, Rebuild Illinois will transform our infrastructure - even as we create a lot more opportunities for Reggie and thousands of young people just like him, with steady work that will help make sure that our economy works for everyone.
Last year we made enormous strides toward equality and opportunity when Democrats and Republicans came together to legalize adult-use cannabis with the most equity-centric legislation in the nation which will result in 63,000 new jobs, and new opportunities for entrepreneurs, especially those from communities that have been left behind. It gives us a chance to collect tax revenue from the residents of Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa and Indiana, and most importantly, we’re giving a second chance to hundreds of thousands of people who had a low level cannabis conviction or arrest on their record.
The bipartisan License to Work Act that I signed two weeks ago ended the practice of revoking driver’s licenses for unpaid parking tickets and fines - because often the only way someone has to pay their parking ticket is if they can travel to work. We restored driving privileges to more than 50,000 people.
When public policy makes it a crime to be poor, it ends up costing us all. The situation you may be born into, the struggles you may be born with — even the struggles you never expected to be your own — should not be allowed to write your entire future.
We’ve also begun the long work of tackling our pension problems. In addition to expanding our state pension buyout program, in the fall veto session we accomplished something that eluded governors and General Assemblies for almost 75 years by consolidating 650 downstate and suburban first responder pension systems - which will alleviate local property tax burdens and strengthen the funds that offer a decent retirement to our police and firefighters.
Maybe more significantly - the bill we passed was supported by both a leading progressive Representative, Will Guzzardi, AND an outspoken conservative Senator, Dan McConchie.
All I can say is, anything is possible.
We did big things to help people. Real people who live and work here every day. We raised the minimum wage, advanced equal pay for women and minorities, provided millions of Illinoisans relief from high interest on consumer debt, and expanded health care to tens of thousands more people across the state.
We are reaffirming that our most important commitments are to our children and their education. Mark my words, Illinois will be the best state in the nation to raise a young family. Today, 20,000 more kids are getting childcare, and thousands more are going to preschool. To address our state’s shortage of teachers, we raised the minimum teacher salary so we can retain educators in Illinois, and we made it more attractive for out-of-state teachers to move here. We made it easier for high school graduates to get a skilled wage by expanding vocational training and career and technical education for the first time in a decade. And after years of decline, we are turning around university student enrollment by making college more affordable, expanding scholarships to an additional 10,000 college-bound students - and this fall, more than half of the families in our state will be eligible for free tuition at the University of Illinois.
We made healthcare more available - and more affordable.
Working with Senator Andy Manar, we capped out-of-pocket insulin costs at $100 for a 30-day supply so that no one in Illinois has to decide between buying food and paying for the medicine they need to stay alive.
We expanded insurance coverage for mammograms and reproductive health. And we protected people who need treatment for life-threatening allergic reactions.
Overall, the number of opioid related deaths are declining.
We diminished dependence on opioids by reforming the medical cannabis program to cover chronic pain conditions, and we’re focused on using evidence-based practices to reduce racial disparities as we continue to battle the opioid crisis.
In the face of the resurgences of measles, mumps and other diseases, we restored federal funding of our state immunization program — which was shut down under the previous administration.
We raised the age to buy cigarettes and vaping products to 21, so we can reduce youth tobacco use.
We stood up for human rights and civil rights when we put Donald Trump on notice that Illinois will not be complicit in his shameful and draconian immigration policies.
We opted in — to welcoming refugees to Illinois - continuing a proud tradition in this state that stretches back to my great grandparents, welcomed here a century ago after fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe.
We invested in public safety by expanding the number of new Illinois State Troopers. And we’re building a new state police forensics lab so we can solve crimes faster and address the backlog of DNA testing of rape evidence — because crime victims shouldn’t have to wait for justice.
We stopped bad-mouthing the state and started passing laws that make Illinois more attractive for businesses and jobs. Working across the aisle, we brought tax relief for 300,000 small businesses through the phase out of the corporate franchise tax. And we laid the groundwork for new high-paying tech jobs by opening new business incubators, by incentivizing the building of new data centers, and by investing $100 million in a University of Illinois and University of Chicago partnership that will make Illinois the quantum computing capital of the world.
Jobs and businesses are coming to this state because we are investing in the things that have always made us great: a skilled workforce, modern infrastructure, great public schools, top research universities, a robust agricultural sector, and a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship literally built into the steel frames of our skyscrapers - themselves a symbol of Illinois’ ambition and belief in the future.
By almost every measure, over the past year we’ve improved the financial wellbeing, health, education and safety of the residents of Illinois - and we did it working together.
And now we have to work together to confront a scourge that has been plaguing our political system for far too long. We must root out the purveyors of greed and corruption — in both parties — whose presence infects the bloodstream of government. It’s no longer enough to sit idle while under-the-table deals, extortion, or bribery persist. Protecting that culture or tolerating it is no longer acceptable. We must take urgent action to restore the public’s trust in our government. That’s why we need to pass real, lasting ethics reform this legislative session.
Honest members of the General Assembly from both sides of the aisle have some good ideas, and so do I.
It’s time to end the practice of legislators serving as paid lobbyists. In fact it’s time to end the for-profit influence peddling among all elected officials at every level of government in Illinois. Disclosure of conflicts of interest and punishment for breaching them must be included in any ethics package for us to truly clean up government. Most states have a revolving door provision for legislators, and it’s time for Illinois to join them. Elected officials shouldn’t be allowed to retire and immediately start lobbying their former colleagues. It’s wrong, and it’s got to stop.
There are many more ethics reforms that must be addressed this spring, and I expect the legislature’s bipartisan ethics commission to issue its report in the next 8 weeks. Restoring the public’s trust is of paramount importance. Let’s not let the well-connected and well-protected work the system while the interests of ordinary citizens are forgotten. There is too much that needs to be accomplished to lift up all the people of Illinois.
The overwhelming majority of people involved with government and public policy and politics here in Illinois truly just want what is best for this state. From legislators to citizen activists to reporters - they chisel away at intractable problems and put their shoulders into making real, lasting institutional change. They don’t get distracted or dejected - whether they are battling poverty, fighting for increased education funding, or fixing the unglamorous but essential problems of our state’s IT infrastructure. Illinois is full of people who love our state and are willing to work earnestly every day to fight for her.
Which is why we have to be committed to the hard work of changing another aspect of the political culture in this state that has too often rewarded a go-along-to-get-along attitude at the expense of truly ethical conduct.
When I took office a year ago, I hired people who came from all walks of life, all different backgrounds - who were diverse in gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, geography and life experience and whose only loyalty is to good ideas and good results. And I took heat for it from some who had been here a very long time. Many were incredulous that I wasn’t just automatically hiring the same old faces that get jobs year in and year out.
A commitment to diversity and inclusion is not just a talking point for me, and I hope that the past year has proven that. I have an administration that looks far more like the state we represent than any that has come before it. I have elevated talented people who have been overlooked for far too long, and our state is doing better because of it.
Change needs to happen. And much of this change needs to happen outside of the scope of legislation. It’s about how we, as public officials, conduct ourselves in private that also matters. Common sense and basic decency need to prevail in the everyday interactions that make government work. People need to treat disgusting suggestions with disgust. The old patronage system needs to die...finally and completely. The input of women and people of color need to be treated as essential to decision making - not as some token show of diversity.
Bit by bit, inch by inch, I am working hard to reverse the harm that has been done to people and communities that have been left behind over many generations by government policies and elected officials who were content to simply ignore them. I remind myself every day that I have obligations not just to the current people of Illinois, but to the many people who preceded us who were discriminated against, harmed, treated as lesser, and forgotten - lasting damage that echoes through too many communities today. We are obligated to make our future more equitable and fair.
I came into this office with the message that I am committed to doing things differently in my administration. A lot of folks didn’t believe me a year ago. Now you can see how far we can come in a year - even when work still remains.
It’s time for us to recommit ourselves to the hard work of bringing prosperity and opportunity to all communities in Illinois through a fairer tax system, job creation, education and job training programs, child care and pre-school, and a focus on building essential tools of success such as high-speed Internet in all corners of our state.
This spring, working with legislators, we will begin the long path toward a fairer criminal justice system. That starts with phasing out cash bail and following many of the recommendations made by the bipartisan criminal justice reform commission created by my predecessor, most of whose ideas were never adopted because of the rancor and dysfunction.
Our spring agenda must also address the pressing issue of adopting new clean energy legislation that reduces carbon pollution, promotes renewable energy, and accelerates electrification of our transportation sector. We saw the effects of climate change right here in Illinois last year with a polar vortex, devastating floods, record lake levels, and emergency declarations in more than a third of Illinois’ counties.
Urgent action is needed — but let me be clear, the old ways of negotiating energy legislation are over. It’s time to put consumers and climate first. I’m not going to sign an energy bill written by the utility companies.
Property taxes in Illinois are simply too high. That’s why it’s time to put the best ideas to work from both sides of the aisle. Local governments continue to max out their levies even when they don’t need to. There are perverse incentives in state law that encourage that. We can change the law to support local governments and lower property taxes. And with nearly 7,000 units of government in Illinois, it’s time to empower local taxpayers to consolidate or eliminate them. These changes, along with our landmark pension reform that consolidated police and firefighter pensions, can make a serious dent in property taxes.
Today in Illinois we are governing with our heads and our hearts. In a time when cynicism has too often become the rule rather than the exception, we’re proving that we really can make progress. We’re showing the rest of the nation what pragmatic progressive leadership looks like - and putting our state back on the side of working families.
A year ago, I shared a story at my Inauguration. It was also about flags - about how a couple in Barrington, Illinois, had their Pride flag stolen from their backyard and replaced with an American flag.
Bigots wrapping themselves in a veil of patriotism are an increasingly familiar sight these days, and it’s a dangerous trend.
But the community fought back. A neighbor, Kim Filian, upon hearing about the incident, put a Pride flag in her yard in solidarity. And then suddenly lots of people were asking for them, and she was giving out Pride flags to everyone in Barrington - they were popping up in yards all over the neighborhood.
Kim told the news at the time: “Frankly, I’ve grown weary of this, of all this hate. And I gotta say, it just seemed like there was one thing that I could do that I had control of.”
I’ve thought a lot about that story this past year. It reminds me of the fundamental goodness and decency of the people who live here in Illinois and about how hard they will fight for each other.
It reminds me that we all ought to think a little like Kim Filian every day - to remember the things we have control of. So this past June, I asked Secretary of State Jesse White to fly a Pride flag over the Illinois state capitol for the first time in our history. After all, we have a choice about how we tell our story, and I want our Illinois story to be one of hope, inclusion, opportunity and kindness. I want it to be inspired every day by the fundamental goodness of the people who live and work here and who struggle so hard for a fair shot.
Those are good ideals to live by. Those are good ideals to govern by. Let’s all try to remember them in the year ahead.
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky