Last week, Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker announced his bid for reelection in 2022. Pritzker may not be America’s worst governor, but the gap between his performance and what his state needs is immense. Illinois is one of three states losing population, its pensions are among the nation’s most underfunded, and it is rated as one of the worst states for doing business. Yet Pritzker is making all these problems worse by giving away the store to public-sector unions and raising taxes on business.
Unions are the mainstay of the Democratic Party in Illinois, and Pritzker’s regime gives them what they want. Instead of reforming pensions, Pritzker has added to taxpayers’ burdens in paying for them. He signed legislation boosting retirement pay of Chicago firefighters even beyond what they had achieved in collective bargaining. And he did so over the objections of Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s Democratic mayor, who said such changes were unaffordable.
Pritzker has given unions not just more money but more power, enabling them to distort government services further in their own interest. The Chicago Teachers Union has been notoriously uncooperative during the pandemic, blocking in-person instruction at every turn—even for the youngest children, for whom remote education is close to useless. But Pritzker has nevertheless rewarded the union, again over the objections of Mayor Lightfoot. He signed a bill letting the teachers bargain over staffing levels and time and place of work.
Pritzker also supported and signed a bill replacing mayoral control of Chicago schools with a 21-person elected board of education. Social science shows that these boards are much more responsive to unions than are mayors because the unions can focus their political power on getting their allies elected and face few countervailing interests, as they would in mayoral elections. Pritzker even tried to reduce tax credits for scholarships to private schools that provide good education for many poor children and much-needed competition to public schools. Improving human capital is a key to reversing the state’s long-term downturn, but Pritzker is ceding control of that future to a guild that pursues its own welfare at the expense of children.
Illinois is one of the most highly taxed states, but Pritzker wants to raise rates on its most productive citizens. The Illinois constitution requires a flat tax, but in 2020 Pritzker supported a constitutional amendment to permit higher taxes according to income and proposed jacking up the highest rates almost three percentage points. The amendment was soundly defeated. Even this blue-leaning state does not trust its notoriously corrupt government with more money.
Nevertheless, Pritzker in his latest budget raised taxes on businesses, including some levies that he had previously agreed with Republicans to cut. These include the franchise tax, which Pritzker persuaded the legislature to reimpose. An odd and burdensome exaction on businesses’ capital that only seven other states charge, the franchise tax is hard to calculate and a headache for firms large and small. The Chamber of Commerce waged a long campaign to eliminate it; the chamber also opposed Pritzker’s amendment to ditch the flat tax. Being so obviously contrary to the goal of improving a poor business climate, the franchise tax’s renewal seems like an act of retaliation by the governor.
Illinois saw some of the worst of last year’s riots. Murders were up more than 50 percent in Chicago in 2020 and continue at similar levels this year. Yet Pritzker signed a bill endorsing various criminal-justice experiments, many of which will hamper efforts to crack down on crime. The bill abolishes cash bail. Even more-moderate limitations on cash bail in Chicago have resulted in more crime and fewer defendants showing up for trial. Because of the legislation, police will also no longer be able to make arrests for many acts of criminal trespass, creating an obstacle to breaking up gang violence in the making. Most of the bill’s provisions conveniently don’t begin until January 2023. Its timing does not make Illinois safer, but it does protect the politicians who voted for it.
During his campaign, Pritzker promised to work for an independent commission for redistricting and to veto any partisan redistricting bills. He pledged to establish his good-government bona fides because his ethics had been questioned when it was disclosed that he disabled bathrooms in his mansion to avoid paying property taxes. The revelation of what appeared to be crude tax evasion was particularly damaging because Pritzker has a net worth of over $1 billion.
But Pritzker now has gone back on his word and signed a redistricting bill that gerrymanders districts to keep Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature and even changes the voting boundaries for judicial elections in an effort to preserve the state supreme court’s Democratic majority. This decision is not only a breach of trust with the voters but will also worsen all the factors—bloated and unfunded pensions, high taxes, and poor public services—motivating citizens to flee the state. A legislature that skews more Democratic than the states’ citizens will produce more left-wing economic legislation, making the state even more uncompetitive.
Pritzker could have used the independence that comes with bankrolling his own campaign to govern as a pro-business, centrist Democrat looking to spur economic growth so that his state could meet its liabilities and retain its tax base. Instead, he has continued down the path of high taxes and union control that will send even more citizens packing for other states. California and New York have more space for bad governance because they can afford to live off the capital of Silicon Valley and Wall Street; with no comparably powerful economic engine, Illinois is already in dire straits. In Pritzker, Illinois has an amateur governor—one happy to use his inherited millions to scare off opposition while he accelerates the state’s already rapid decline.
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