In the background, as Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivered his annual budget address on Wednesday from the Illinois State Fairgrounds, we could see men and women in camouflage uniforms wiping down tables and straightening chairs.
They were members of the Illinois National Guard. They were tidying up a building that is being used to administer COVID-19 vaccinations to thousands of Illinois residents. And though Pritzker never mentioned them, their presence reinforced the single most important message of the day:
Illinois, like the rest of the nation, remains deeply immersed in the greatest public health crisis since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Families and small businesses continue to be slammed. And the most important job of government at such a time, as Pritzker said, is to “end the crisis as quickly as possible” and “limit the pain” for ordinary people.
The governor laid out a proposed budget for fiscal year 2022 that aims to do just that, maintaining essential services and providing relief to small businesses while avoiding a general tax hike. It’s an imperfect plan, far from a crowd pleaser, but it gets its priorities right.
No time for knee-jerk ideology
Pritzker’s usual Republican and big business critics nonetheless were quick to pounce, flooding our email inbox with official statements of outrage minutes after the governor finished his speech. Sadly, not one of them offered a better idea. They argued out of ideological reflex, callous to the exceptional nature of the human crisis at hand.
Vaguely calling for hundreds of millions of dollars in additional state spending cuts is not a better idea. Certainly not during a pandemic. What exactly should be cut? The naysayers never say.
Calling for unionized state workers to roll over and accept big cuts in pay is not a better idea. The embarrassing truth is that the very rich in America have grown only richer during this pandemic, while working people have fallen behind. Why should some clerk in Springfield get paid less so that a big corporation can avoid, say, a sales tax exemption?
Arguing against the federal government sending to Illinois billions of dollars in pandemic relief aid — because, golly, our state has not been tight enough with a buck — is not a better idea. As if Illinois and local governments have not been swamped with new demands on services because of the pandemic. These conservative editorial writers and Downstate Republican congressmen — whose side are they on?
The truth seldom acknowledged by Illinois Republicans, as Pritzker pointed out Wednesday, is that Illinois sends more money to Washington than it gets back, the size of state government has been reduced by 30% since the early days of the administration of Gov. Pat Quinn, and Illinois today spends less money per person than the majority of states.
Hanging in there
While the pandemic rages on, the challenge for state government is simply to hang in there, serving those in need while trying to hold the line on expenses.
About 23,500 people in Illinois have died from COVID-19, and while the death rate finally is on the decline, public health experts warn that the pandemic could be with us for another year or even longer. The unemployment rate in Illinois — a pretty good index of general misery — has declined as well, but it still stands at 7.6%, about a percentage point above the national rate.
This is no time, as Pritzker’s budget reflects, to cut unemployment programs or reduce access to health care. It is no time to cut funding for education, childcare or services for the elderly.
It is no time, for that matter, to increase the state income tax, though that might have made a great deal of sense had Pritzker’s proposed graduated income tax been approved by the voters last fall. As it is, hiking the state’s flat tax would put another burden on the middle-class at an exceptionally bad time.
Live to fight another day
Listen, we get it. There are always fights to be fought, battles to be won and lost, on everything from taxation to school funding to the generous pensions of state workers. In normal times, we’re inclined to jump right into those fights. We’ve got issues with Pritzker’s budget, too.
In the same way, for example, that many big business leaders are opposed to Pritzker’s call to eliminate a variety of tax breaks for businesses, we’re disappointed that his budget does not increase aid to schools. When a new school funding formula was approved by the Legislature in 2017, there was an understanding that funding would be increased each year until inequities between rich and poor school districts were leveled out. Now, Pritzker wants to put that commitment on hold.
But these are not normal times. We are fighting a devastating pandemic.
It is the only fight that matters.
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