By any objective measure, this session of the state Legislature was a tour de force for new Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker.
He won the day on major parts of his agenda, with the Democratic supermajority key in approving a hike in the minimum wage, a graduated tax amendment, and legalizing marijuana. Lawmakers of both parties agreed to a major investment in Illinois infrastructure, a sweeping gambling expansion, and a balanced budget.
While lawmakers in Springfield were jubilant, many of the people they represent are incensed at the increased taxes and fees they'll be required to pay.
Late Friday, state senators spent more than an hour in impassioned debate before approving a proposal to enshrine abortion rights as sacrosanct in Illinois. Around midnight, they hurried to approve a series of measures to implement a roughly $40 billion budget that was a 2% larger than last year's. The document had hit lawmakers' desks only hour earlier. After its passage, the public learned the plan includes measures such as a pay raise for lawmakers, and a repeal of a year-old provision that imposed a 3% cap on teacher pay increases in their final years to curb pension-spiking.
There were some business concessions included at the behest of Republicans – including measures aimed at bringing more data centers to the state and a purchasing credit for manufacturers – but all businesses will be pressed to meet the state’s schedule to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025.
A $45 billion capital plan approved this session will be a positive for Illinois. It was long overdue and will create jobs and bolster our state's transportation infrastructure along with public buildings.
The new taxes and societal changes it brings about also will be impactful, though. It will be paid for in part with tax increases on everyday citizens, including a doubling of the state’s gas tax and increases in vehicle registration fees, and expanding the state sales tax to internet purchases. Then there are the “sin” taxes, including adding $1 to the tax on a pack of cigarettes, and new taxes on e-cigarettes.
The gambling expansion needed for the capital bill will be most transformative, however. It calls for six new casinos – including in Rockford, Waukegan, Chicago and the south suburbs – and allows for eventual sports betting online, at racetracks and pro sports venues, and through the Illinois Lottery. Our state will be the Las Vegas of the Midwest.
Meanwhile, recreational marijuana legalization will create a new market of dispensaries selling an intoxicating substance.
While celebrating actions that will take more money from Illinoisans, lawmakers did little in the way of reform or cost-cutting.
State Medicaid spending was unmentioned. The more than $130 billion in unfunded pension obligations came up rarely, with the exception of when the state learned it would receive a $1.5 billion income tax windfall that would allow it to actually make its required payment to the various pension systems.
Property taxes were paid token attention, with the announcement of another task force to examine the issue. The last one, established by Gov. Bruce Rauner, made 27 recommendations aimed at government consolidation in 2016. No task force will help Illinois property owners. How about legislation that mandates a levy reduction, or at least a freeze?
This session was a marked change from the Rauner years – Illinois has an agreed-upon budget; the state is moving forward. However, it is headed down a path that relies heavily on tax-weary citizens to finance grand plans, without addressing root causes of its financial distress.
Make the next "tough vote" one that reduces the burden on taxpayers. We'd like to celebrate, too.