What will J.B. Pritzker do with his clout?

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - EDITORIALS -

On Mon­day, J.B. Pritzker will be sworn in as Illi­nois’ 43rd gov­er­nor. He’ll be sur­rounded by a Demo­cratic su­per­ma­jor­ity leg­is­la­ture. He helped build it.

Pritzker spent more than $160 mil­lion of his own money to win the keys to the Gov­er­nor’s Man­sion. But he also shov­eled dough into Demo­cratic or­ga­ni­za­tions statewide. He bankrolled get-out­the-vote ef­forts, mail pieces and cam­paign staff. He sent money to dozens of Chicago al­der­men, the Cook County Demo­cratic Party, House and Se­nate or­ga­ni­za­tions, la­bor unions, statewide can­di­dates, and Democrats in town­ships and coun­ties. He has patched to­gether his own or­ga­ni­za­tion.

As chair­man of the Demo­cratic Party of Illi­nois, House Speaker Michael Madi­gan often gets credit for the party’s suc­cesses. But it was Pritzker’s mus­cle — and of course his check­book — that pushed Democrats into his­tor­i­cally Repub­li­can ter­ri­to­ries on Nov. 6, top­pling GOP in­cum­bents in state and fed­eral races and spray­ing the state blue. This is his Illi­nois now — if he wants it to be.

Will Pritzker eclipse Madi­gan?

Pritzker will stroll into of­fice with this friendly leg­is­la­ture he helped in­stall. That ad­van­tage could el­e­vate him higher even than Madi­gan, the na­tion’s long­est-serv­ing House speaker. Will Pritzker pro­tect his own rep­u­ta­tion and be a gov­er­nor who de­mands per­for­mance? Will he use his lever­age to in­sist on a truly bal­anced bud­get? On pro-growth strate­gies to keep res­i­dents and em­ploy­ers from flee­ing? On re­forms vot­ers have been clam­or­ing for, such as fair re­dis­trict­ing maps and term lim­its for politi­cians?

As a busi­ness­man, Pritzker knows high prop­erty taxes, gov­ern­ment debt and po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity have been driv­ing pop­u­la­tion num­bers down­ward. Res­i­dents don’t trust gov­ern­ment. They’re giv­ing up. Where Illi­nois is shrink­ing, its Mid­west­ern neigh­bors are grow­ing.

‘Illi­nois Ex­o­dus’ is swelling

Illi­nois’ obli­ga­tions to its pen­sion sys­tem con­tinue to squeeze spend­ing on ed­u­ca­tion, so­cial ser­vices and other state pro­grams. The state owes $7.4 bil­lion in un­paid bills. And new U.S. Census num­bers show the “Illi­nois Ex­o­dus” is ramp­ing up. For the fifth straight year, the state lost more res­i­dents than it gained. The net re­duc­tion means 45,116 fewer Illi­noisans from 2017 to 2018. Only the state of New York lost more res­i­dents.

There are un­de­ni­able truths in all these num­bers.

The so­lu­tions can­not be lim­ited to new rev­enue raised by ex­panded gam­bling and le­gal­iz­ing recre­ational mar­i­juana. Em­ploy­ers want deeper work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion re­form and prop­erty tax re­lief. They want spend­ing cuts. They want less in­ter­fer­ence from Spring­field. They want lower taxes. And all tax­pay­ers, be they in­di­vid­u­als or busi­nesses, want a state gov­ern­ment that is ac­count­able to the peo­ple whose money it spends.

In other states, Democrats have led re­forms

Vot­ers re­jected a sec­ond term for Gov. Bruce Rauner. But he was right dur­ing his elec­tion night con­ces­sion speech when he said Democrats in other states have cham­pi­oned the pro-growth poli­cies Illi­nois des­per­ately needs. “Let’s re­al­ize many states have made the ex­act changes that we need to make in Illi­nois — yes, they have — they have made them in other states on a bi­par­ti­san ba­sis, led by Democrats,” he said the evening of Nov. 6. ■ Rhode Is­land’s Demo­cratic Gov. Gina Rai­mondo, elected to a sec­ond term in Novem­ber, re­vamped that state’s pen­sion sys­tem by curb­ing costly ben­e­fits and of­fer­ing em­ploy­ees 401(k)style plans. Rai­mondo also in­structed state agen­cies to cut reg­u­la­tions that were oner­ous to em­ploy­ers. The re­sult was a 30 per­cent re­duc­tion in state reg­u­la­tions and 8,000 fewer pages of rules and codes.

■ Cal­i­for­nia Democrats led on re­dis­trict­ing re­form. A dozen other states have fol­lowed with fairer mod­els that in­clude less par­ti­san in­flu­ence. Illi­nois vot­ers have been beg­ging for those changes from a re­cal­ci­trant leg­is­la­ture. Un­less Pritzker takes a lead­er­ship role on that is­sue, the next leg­isla­tive map, drawn in 2021 af­ter the 2020 census, likely will be a re­peat ex­er­cise in in­cum­bent pro­tec­tion and hy­per­par­ti­san pol­i­tick­ing. Democrats fash­ioned the last set of maps for state and fed­eral of­fices be­hind closed doors. They drew in­cum­bents’ homes, their churches, their friends and their vot­ing bases into each dis­trict on a blockby-block ba­sis. It was patently un­demo­cratic and self-serv­ing — politi­cians choos­ing their con­stituents rather than the other way around. ■ Democrats in Ari­zona joined with ma­jor­ity Repub­li­cans to change that state’s con­sti­tu­tional clause on pen­sions and curb costly, an­nual pay in­creases for re­tired work­ers. Yes, Democrats were on board. Those changes have sta­bi­lized funds in Ari­zona’s pen­sion sys­tem. Illi­nois Democrats, by com­par­i­son, have al­lowed the un­funded li­a­bil­i­ties in the state pen­sion funds to grow from about $40 bil­lion to $133 bil­lion since they took over both cham­bers of the leg­is­la­ture in 2003.

Pritzker and pub­lic unions

Pritzker will serve as gov­er­nor of the sixth-largest state with a per­sonal check­book and a po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion Democrats need as much as they covet and in some cases fear. He can an­swer not to Madi­gan’s Demo­cratic Party but in­stead to the vot­ers who chose him to re­place Rauner.

How to gauge whether Pritzker will op­er­ate in­de­pen­dently? One big clue will be the way he con­cludes con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of State, County and Mu­nic­i­pal Em­ploy­ees. Union lead­ers think they got Pritzker elected, and there­fore he owes them. In fact, Pritzker’s fidu­ciary re­spon­si­bil­ity is to all Illi­noisans. High state and lo­cal taxes are dis­cour­ag­ing job growth and driv­ing the ex­o­dus. Rauner re­fused to in­crease la­bor costs, ne­go­ti­at­ing con­tracts that froze wages for other unions. Will Pritzker show re­solve in his deal­ings with AF­SCME or will he cave?

Af­ter the sweet pol­icy prom­ises, then what?

On in­au­gu­ra­tion day, Pritzker will mur­mur the sweet pol­icy prom­ises those vot­ers want to hear — more spend­ing on this, more spend­ing on that. He also knows, though, that the state gov­ern­ment he’ll lead is in­sol­vent, un­able to pay its bills as they come due, and gravely vul­ner­a­ble in the in­evitable next re­ces­sion, when­ever it ar­rives.

That said, Pritzker en­ters of­fice with gigantic ad­van­tages. He can lever­age his fi­nan­cial and elec­toral in­de­pen­dence to di­min­ish the power of the es­tab­lish­ment Democrats who cre­ated, and who guard, the mis­er­able sta­tus quo. There are many.

Pritzker knows that Illi­nois has to res­cue its fi­nances and gen­er­ate more jobs. He’s be­holden to no one. What will he do with his clout?


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