Report card: How’s Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker done in 4 years?
A review of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s term in Illinois’ highest office examines his track record beyond the campaign rhetoric. The second and final gubernatorial debate with opponent Darren Bailey is Oct. 18.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his gubernatorial challenger, state Sen. Darren Bailey, will appear Oct. 18 in Chicago for Illinois’ second gubernatorial debate.
The final event showcasing the two candidates running for Illinois’ highest office Nov. 8 comes less than two weeks after their first debate Oct. 6 in Normal, Illinois.
While both candidates used the opportunity to tout their public service records, including Pritzker saying he’d balanced four state budgets, increased pension contributions and provided tax relief to Illinoisans, his claims were a version of the truth.
Before you watch the debate and vote this November, here is what you need to know about public policy during Pritzker’s tenure.
While Pritzker reduced residents’ future property tax payments after consolidating 650 state police and fireman pensions in 2019 and is slowly sending out one-time rebate checks averaging $200 with only 14% distributed after a month, Illinoisans’ overall property taxes have still gone up $2,228 since he took office.
Illinois homeowners now spend the second most on property taxes in the U.S. and more than double the national average.
Other taxes, fees
Pritzker’s Family Relief Plan went into effect July 1, 2022, suspending Illinois’ 1% grocery tax for one year, delaying an automatic 2.4-cent gas tax increase until January 2023, reducing the state sales taxes on qualified clothing and school supplies by 5% for 10 days in August and permanently expanding earned income tax credits, in addition to issuing income and property tax rebates.
In total, the temporary relief was projected to save Illinois families $556 over one year. But full disclosure should also account for the $2,721 more in taxes Pritzker imposed on families by doubling the state gas tax to the second highest in the nation, increasing vehicle registration, parking fees and expanding the state’s online sales tax. He also raised taxes on small business by $65o million.
Subtract the temporary tax break from the new or higher permanent taxes and fees and the government under Pritzker ate $2,165 more of the average family’s income. Illinoisans now pay 2% more of their annual income to state taxes than before Pritzker took office.
Pritzker told Crain’s Chicago Business that more tax hikes are off the table if he wins a second term.
Pritzker has repeatedly claimed to have balanced the state budget each year since taking office, including a $46.5 billion budget for fiscal year 2023 – the largest ever passed in Illinois’ history.
But there was also $14 billion in new federal relief funds to the state, counties and municipal governments during the pandemic that were used to pay down existing obligations. Illinois was also the only state to rely on emergency borrowing from the Federal Reserve to shore up its budget during the pandemic, bringing in an additional $3.2 billion.
Pritzker did use these fungible relief dollars to refill the state’s rainy-day fund to over $1 billion and pay off $1.098 billion in owed pre-paid tuition and state employee health insurance debt.
Pritzker secured six credit upgrades for Illinois since 2021 – the first upgrades on state bond ratings in more than two decades. Even so, the state still boasts the worst credit rating in the nation.
The governor further repaid $3.15 billion in Illinois’ unemployment insurance trust fund debt accumulated during the pandemic, reducing the remaining liability to $1.35 billion.
However, because Pritzker missed the loan repayment deadline, and this balance remains in the red, federal law mandates business owners pay progressively higher taxes each year until the debt is repaid. It is estimated to have cost businesses at least $64 million since 2021.
Illinois job growth severely lagged the national average when Pritzker took office in 2019, before COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns drove unemployment to unprecedented levels. Using emergency powers, Pritzker exacerbated pandemic job losses by shuttering businesses statewide with varying degrees of success at limiting virus transmission.
Pritzker’s shutdowns permanently closed 35% of Illinois’ small businesses just one year into the pandemic. Two years later, the state is still missing 11.1% of those businesses while the number of small businesses increased 3.1% nationally.
These orders disparately impacted Illinois restaurants and bars, which were the second last to reopen in the nation. School closures also lead to women leaving the workforce at nearly three times the rate of comparable dads with children. Both women and minorities lagged the job recovery rate of white males in Illinois.
Even now, after pandemic protocols have been lifted by the governor’s decree, Illinois has one of the worst job recovery rates in the nation. In fact, the state is still missing 1 in 10 jobs lost at the onset of COVID-19 and reported the weakest month of job growth in September in more than a year. Illinois does have the 19th highest vaccination rate in the county.
Pritzker extended his own emergency executive powers for the 34th month in September as President Joe Biden declared the pandemic official over in the U.S. He has since issued a 35th disaster proclamation, holding onto these pandemic powers.
State business climate
Illinois’ record of taxes and fees has caused the state to become one of the worst places to do business in the Midwest. Among Illinois and its neighbors, only Illinois dropped in the Tax Foundation’s Business Tax Climate rankings since 2018. Illinois’ business climate dropped seven places, to 36th from 29th in four years.
In the past year, six companies left Illinois including Tyson, Citadel, Boeing, Caterpillar, FTX and Highland Ventures. The departures occurred the same year the state was ranked third-worst in the nation to do business by Chief Executive magazine.
While these companies left, Pritzker did bring in tens of thousands more jobs to Illinois from other big companies such as Kellogg’s, Rivian and Amazon. In total, the state has experienced eight consecutive years of outmigration with the most residents ever leaving in 2021.
Illinois was home to the nation’s worst pension debt before Pritzker took office, reporting $133 billion in unfunded state liabilities in 2018. Moody’s calculations using more realistic assumptions on returns put that debt at $241 billion.
But since Pritzker became governor, Illinois’ pension debt has skyrocketed an additional $72 billion – reaching $313 billion in unpaid obligations during 2022, Moody’s calculated. These payments now consume more than 25 cents of every dollar spent in the state budget.
Pritzker did contribute $500 million more to pension in 2022 than was required and extended the state’s underperforming pension buyout program until 2026, on top of consolidating police and fire pensions.
Illinoisans should keep in mind the state is only required to fund 90% of pension benefits promised to state workers rather than 100% – a money-saving tactic discouraged by actuaries. This means even were Illinois paying the minimum, it would still be underfunding pensions.