SPRINGFIELD – Billionaire J.B. Pritzker took the oath Monday as Illinois governor, giving Democrats nearly unprecedented power at the Statehouse after four years of divided government only worsened the economic woes of a state billions of dollars in debt.
The 53-year-old heir to the Hyatt hotel chain defeated Republican predecessor Bruce Rauner in November. Throughout his four years in office, Rauner clashed with Democrats who dominate the Legislature, contributing to the longest stretch without an annual budget of any state since the Great Depression and driving the state’s credit rating to the brink of “junk” status.
Pritzker offered a cooperative future while blaming the stalemate on Rauner and his insistence that only a complete reboot could fix “broken” Illinois.
“At 200 years old, Illinois is still a young promise,” said Pritzker, who became the state’s 43rd executive six weeks after its bicentennial. “We must begin a new century with new maturity and enough foolishness to believe we can make a difference. That starts with leadership that abandons single-minded, arrogant notions. No, everything is not broken.”
Circumstances have set the bar low for Pritzker success. Rauner’s demand for his business-friendly, anti-union agenda in exchange for a state spending plan hit a buzz-saw in the Democrats who controlled the General Assembly.
Chicago Democrat Michael Madigan took the gavel last week for his 18th term as House speaker, a tenure covering all but two years since 1983. The longest-serving speaker of a state House in U.S. history brought with him near-record legislative majorities.
In the past 140 years, the 74-44 Democratic House majority is second only to the party’s strength in 1965-67, and the Senate’s 40 Democrats to 19 Republicans matches the 2013-15 count and, as a percentage, falls behind only the Democrats’ 1935-37 majority.
Pritzker repeated pledges to create a long-desired capital construction plan to fix roads and bridges and to make a push in the just-begun General Assembly to legalize the recreational use of marijuana and its hoped-for $1 billion in annual tax revenue.
And Illinois’ flat-rate income tax system, which turns 50 this year, is unsustainable, Pritzker said, whose $3.2 billion net worth ranked him 251st on Forbes’ wealthiest 400 Americans last fall. He reiterated his promise to change the state Constitution to create a progressive system that forces the rich to pay a greater percentage of income.
“Our regressive tax system ... has the middle class paying more than double the rate the wealthy pay. That’s not fair, and it also doesn’t pay our bills,” Pritzker said. “Today our state’s fiscal instability affects every single person who lives and works in Illinois, whether you earn millions or the minimum wage.”
Illinois taxpayers well know the fiscal foibles, which predate Rauner’s term. Overdue bills total $7.5 billion and a $130 billion shortfall in what the state owes to its pension plans continues to haunt politicians who repeatedly short-changed it.
The Rauner administration last fall predicted the current state budget will fall $500 million short at the end of the fiscal year June 30, although tax revenues in the first six months of the budget year ran 10 percent ahead of the previous year.
After Monday’s inauguration, Democrats comprise Illinois’ entire statewide slate. Incoming Lt. Gov. Julianna Stratton and Attorney General Kwame Raoul were inaugurated. Secretary of State Jesse White, 84, took the oath for an unprecedented fifth term.
Beginning second terms were Treasurer Michael Frerichs and Comptroller Susana Mendoza, who shortly after her November re-election entered a crowded field to replace retiring Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in February’s election.