When Democrat J.B. Pritzker is sworn in as Illinois' 43rd governor eight days from now, he will take the helm of a state that is on the rocks.
Clearly, the incoming captain of this badly listing ship of state has thought about the challenges ahead.
“You can’t solve everything at once,” candidate Pritzker told our editorial board in October. “This is more like turning an aircraft carrier in the right direction; I understand what all the pieces are.”
Now, which ones he puts in play and how he uses them could set the state’s course for many years to come.
Complicating the task is that he will not be the only one driving. Whatever he wants to do can’t happen without the backing of House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton. The Chicago Democratic legislative leaders will boast lopsided veto-proof super-majorities when the new General Assembly is sworn in on Jan. 14.
One would think the onus for the success or failure of the state would be on their shoulders, as much as Pritzker’s.
Madigan, in particular, has spent massive amounts of time and energy over the four last years to defeat Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and replace him with a Democrat. But those who expected the victorious speaker to set a kinder, gentler tone were surely disappointed when the man who also serves as state Democratic Party chairman took the low road, airing campaign-style TV ads promising that that Democrats (not Republicans) “are on your side.”
In contrast, Pritzker appears mindful of the high price of such a partisan win-at-all-cost approach.
Since the governor-elect’s landslide victory, he’s been busy mending fences, convening advisory boards, and filling the panels and his transition team with experienced leaders, including Republicans. He also hosted legislative leaders from both parties at his home to break bread and foster the kind of comity that’s been missing in government for decades.
Pritzker has gone so far as to declare the “days of hyper-partisanship are behind us,” according to the Arlington Heights Daily Herald.
We hope so because we can no longer afford the partisan gridlock that has accelerated Illinois’ race to the bottom.
But it’s not the shrinking Republican minority that will have the biggest impact on Pritzker’s plans, which we no doubt will learn more about when the new governor submits what we hope will be his first truly balanced budget in February.
What Madigan wants also matters, sometimes even more.
So, as Rauner discovered to his dismay and detriment, much will be riding on the tone the new governor sets from Day 1.
That makes it essential that as Pritzker reaches out to others, he also isn’t afraid to demand that lawmakers and their leaders are prepared to make the choices necessary to fix the state’s fiscal problems and avoid making the politically easy ones that will make things worse.
The short list of difficult choices ahead includes: attacking the public pension crisis, advancing policies that grow our state, enacting a capital bill that won’t clobber Illinoisans with a crippling tax increase, creating tax policies that ease the burden on property taxpayers, reining in government spending, and ensuring that new revenues created — for example, taxes and fees on expanded gambling and legalized recreational marijuana sales — are used to fix our state’s problems rather than add unnecessary and expensive new programs Illinois doesn’t need and cannot afford.
No wonder Politico called the Illinois governorship “The Worst Job in American Politics.”
It soon will be Pritzker’s, and given the scope of Illinois’ problems, his political honeymoon could be a short one.
Let’s hope it will be long enough for Pritzker to both get his bearings and begin to chart a better course for Illinois