This editorial appeared in the Feb. 24, 2019, edition of the (Champaign) News-Gazette:
Illinois' new governor made a triumphant appearance before legislators last week, delivering a well-received speech about the state's woes that included promises to tax and spend his way to a $38.7 billion balanced budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
It was a challenge to determine which was longer — his lists of tax increases or spending increases.
But all that — which was more than enough — paled beside Gov. J.B. Pritzker's pledge to spend much of his time leading up to November 2020 pushing an even bigger tax proposal — a constitutional amendment replacing the current mandated flat income tax with a progressive income tax.
"The state needs a fair tax, and I am going to be relentless in pursuing one over the next two years," Pritzker said.
That statement foreshadows the political strategy Pritzker and like-minded politicians will embrace — a progressive tax levying higher rates on rising levels of income is fair, while the current flat tax is not.
It's a credible argument. But those who disagree have their own good points to make. For example, do the taxpayers really want to entrust more of their hard-earned money to the same politicians whose horrific financial decisions have pretty much destroyed the state's financial standing over the past 15 years?
That, of course, is a debate for another day.
For now, Pritzker is trying to fill the budget holes created by our elected officials' long-standing insistence on spending far more money than the state brings in.
That's why Pritzker's budget is balanced based on projections of tax revenues the state will receive if existing taxes (cigarettes, video gambling) are increased and new revenue-generating programs (legalized marijuana, sports betting) are passed.
Among other things, Pritzker also proposed a 5-cent tax on plastic bags and new taxes on insurance companies to help finance Medicaid. He's nickel-and-diming his way to purported solvency.
Most disappointing is Pritzker's plan to divert $878 million in state money that otherwise would go to its flagging public-pension systems ($133 billion underfunded) to other programs.
That deferral will extend the Legislature's current deadline for paying down the underfunding — a schedule they've repeatedly ignored since it was put in place under former Gov. Jim Edgar — from 2045 to 2052.
Indeed, decisions over the years to borrow from Peter to pay Paul is one of the reasons why pension underfunding jumped from $35 billion in 2004 to $133 billion in 2019. A dollar not invested today in the pensions requires $3 or $4 to make up in a few years.
Pritzker has big plans for that money — he wants to increase K-12 and higher-education spending by $630 million and social-service spending by $542 million.
What was especially striking about Pritzker's budget address is his description of his budget as "more austere than I would like."
In other words, Pritzker wants to spend a lot more, but, for now at least, he can't. That's where his plans for the graduated income tax come in.
Pritzker views it — and the many billions in new revenues that he anticipates it would bring in — as a panacea for Illinois finances.
That's not all the planned taxing and spending, either.
Pritzker — along with legislators — is going to push a massive capital-spending plan — details on the construction and the higher taxes needed to pay for it to come later.
Clearly, it's a new day in Springfield. It remains to be seen if it's a better one.
Most striking was the difference between Pritzker's appearance before the General Assembly on Wednesday and that of former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Critics blasted Rauner's proposed balanced budgets as "smoke and mirrors" because they were based on financial projections that depended on his ability to work out a "grand compromise" with the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
Pritzker's budget is similarly based on projections that rely on legislative cooperation. But his budget was characterized by the Chicago Tribune as the product of "hope and prayers."
It's not at all clear what the substantive difference between the two gubernatorial approaches actually is.
But it's a certainty that Democratic legislative leaders are geared up to implement virtually all — if not all — of what Pritzker would like to do.