As of 12:01 p.m. on Monday, Republicans no longer had control over any branch of Illinois state government.
Gov. JB Pritzker laid out a bold, progressive vision for Illinois in his acceptance speech, as did the other five Democrats who also took office Monday afternoon, leaving Republicans with two choices: to saddle up to the negotiating table or fight from the outside.After four years under Gov. Bruce Rauner, many Republicans admit that the constant fighting the self-styled outsider engaged in was ultimately unproductive and led to him losing the office to Pritzker by a near-historic margin in November. So for now at least, most Illinois Republicans are picking the first option and pulling up a chair.
One of the cornerstones of Pritzker’s campaign was his promise to enact a progressive income tax, in which the wealthy — like Pritzker and Rauner — would pay more than those in the middle or working class. Instituting a graduated tax would require changing the state’s constitution, which has mandated a flat income tax for the last 50 years.
Pritzker’s inauguration address did not back off from that campaign promise, telling attendees that Illinois’ current tax structure is “simply unsustainable.”
“Others have lied to you about that fact,” he said. “I won’t. The future of Illinois depends on the passage of a fair income tax, which will bring us into the 21st Century like most of our midwestern neighbors, and like the vast majority of the United States.”
Pritzker said he is “not naïve” about what lies ahead in that fight, and gave a warning to those who oppose a graduated income tax, saying that those who wish to discuss and debate the change “in good faith will be welcomed to the table.”
“But if you lead with partisanship and scare tactics you will be met with considerable political will,” Pritzker said.
Speaking with reporters after the inauguration, Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) said he “wasn’t offended by the rhetoric” from Pritzker’s speech about the coming fight over a progressive income tax.
“What I’ve told him very clearly is that’s not a partisan divide, it’s a philosophical issue,” Brady said. “We Republicans believe that reducing the burden on families and business is more productive, more conducive to economic growth. He believes, obviously strongly, the way he does. But he’s been very clear that aside from that issue, there’s many issues we can work together on and I think he frankly would like to see some Republican ideas as he begins his administration.”
One of those issues, Brady said, is the need for a comprehensive capital bill — one that not only plans ahead for infrastructure needs, but also provides a stable source of revenues to keep the plan on track.
In his address, Pritzker highlighted the need for a new infrastructure plan.
“Railways, roads, bridges and fresh water arteries are on the verge of collapse,” Pritzker said. “Crumbling bridges mean people’s lives are in danger. Deteriorating rail systems mean goods and services take longer to deliver and cost more. We are the nation’s supply chain hub and we must be built like it.”
Illinois’ last capital bill was passed in 2009, and advocates have been pushing for a new plan for years.
One of those advocates, who is both a former colleague and gubernatorial opponent of Brady’s, is Regional Transit Authority Chairman Kirk Dillard, who served in the Illinois Senate for 20 years, representing Hinsdale and surrounding areas. Dillard told The Daily Line on Wednesday that he’s met with Pritzker several times, and is encouraged that the Democrat is “upbeat and he listens.”
Dillard warned that Illinois’ infrastructure is “crumbling” at the same time as Illinois’ financial state. He said he’d “leave it up to policymakers” to which revenue streams would be best to pay off bonds for an infrastructure program, but spoke at length about one option that’s received the most attention lately: an increase in the state’s motor fuel tax.
“The gasoline tax in Illinois has not been touched in nearly four decades, and obviously construction costs have risen over those four decades,” Dillard said. “Its buying power is about half of what it was when it was passed when Jim Thompson was the governor. All the other states around us, except Missouri, have recently raised gasoline fees to pay for infrastructure. The costs for not doing anything in terms of maintenance repairs for automobiles often exceeds the actual costs of the gas tax fee itself.”
An agreement this year about a massive capital bill could help both parties establish some good will early on in Pritzker’s term, which could ease the sting for Republicans as Pritzker moves onto more progressive agenda items.
The governor will also have to contend with House and Senate bodies that are more ideologically divided than in recent years’ past, what with an energized left wing of the Democratic Party and a staunch conservative streak sweeping the Illinois GOP. Last week also saw the departure of a number of suburban Republicans, who were replaced by Democrats for the first time in many years — or in the state’s history.
Dillard, himself a suburban Republican, told The Daily Line that it’s “very painful” to see that shrinking number of GOP suburbanites representing the state.
“The state functions best when it has a very diverse, bipartisan mix of legislators and that Senate Republican voice, of which I used to be part of, I think was a critical balance to Chicago, as well as downstate.,” Dillard said. “I would encourage the Republican party to put more of a focus on trying to re-elect some of the suburban Republican legislators.”
The Illinois GOP is in the midst of figuring out what its identity should be in the age of Pritzker, but despite Monday’s kumbaya-style rhetoric from some Republicans present at the inauguration, the tone from party Chairman Tim Schneider was decidedly different.
Rauner picked Schneider to lead the party 2014 and was a suburban Republican casualty of November’s “Blue Wave,” losing his seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
Schneider has also faced major criticism from hardline conservatives during the past year when former State Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton) and former State Sen. Sam McCann (C-Plainview) went rogue in their separate gubernatorial challenges to Rauner.
“It’s clear that Governor Pritzker’s agenda will be the same agenda that has dragged our state down for decades — borrow, tax, spend, repeat,” Schneider said in a statement. “Over the course of the election and again today, Pritzker promised billions of dollars in new spending, programs, and regulations, all of which our state cannot afford.”
Schneider also alleged that Pritzker’s support of independent redistricting maps in Illinois during the campaign “were only a ploy to win votes,” noting that the governor did not include that issue in his inaugural address.
“Pritzker never intended to end the status quo in Springfield,” Schneider said. “Rather, he’s reinforcing it.”
In a separate letter to Republicans Monday, Schneider struck an even more hardline tone, telling the party faithful that Pritzker’s swearing in “begins the reign of the tax-hiking, tax-avoiding billionaire, Madigan’s hand-picked hand-maiden for the government unions and the special interests feeding on our tax dollars.”
Party leaders will begin recruiting candidates for the 2020 cycle in the next several months.