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Pritzker vows ‘different direction’ for state ahead of inauguration

"Expect me to present a picture of where I believe Illinois needs to go, which is in a very different direction than it has been going over the last four years," Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker told the Sun-Times on Sunday ahead of his inaugural speech Monday. | Photo by Tina Sfondeles

SPRINGFIELD — After taking the oath of office Monday, incoming Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker says he’ll pose — as an “optimist” — that he’ll work to get rid of hyper-partisanship, balance a budget and give the middle class a break.

“Expect me to present a picture of where I believe Illinois needs to go, which is in a very different direction than it has been going over the last four years,” Pritzker told the Sun-Times on Sunday ahead of his inaugural speech Monday.

Pritzker, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, as well as the state’s constitutional officers will be sworn in Monday morning, followed by a swanky ball on the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

Democrats across the state have already offered a big welcome mat to Pritzker, the billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist who vowed in April 2017 to defeat Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. They were relieved to see a self-funded candidate with support from unions and Illinois’ top Democrats.

Now, Pritzker — who has never held an elected position — will have to prove to Illinoisans that he’ll come through on his campaign promises. Will he be the governor to fight his way to a $15 minimum wage despite resistance? Or the one who’ll legalize marijuana, fix the state’s property-tax system and help dig Illinois out of the worst financial hole it has ever seen?

He’s at least in place to get some early victories, especially with a Democratic supermajority in both the House and Senate. And Pritzker has already seen “goodwill” efforts. Last week, legislators approved a measure to allow Pritzker to pay his agency heads 15 percent more than Rauner’s administration. And lawmakers also approved a bill to let Pritzker get rid of members of the Illinois Tollway Board. He’s also expected to be sent a gun dealer licensing bill aimed at stemming the tide of illegal firearms in Chicago. A procedural hold that kept it in the Illinois Senate — to avoid another potential veto — was removed last week.

People stood in line for a traditional meet and greet with Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker at the Old Capitol on Sunday, Jan. 13, 19. | Photo by Tina Sfondeles

“You know the priorities that I ran on — making college affordable for families, bringing back vocational training, lifting up wages, retaining jobs and lowering the cost of health care and expanding it,” Pritzker said. “Those are all things that I’m working on — on day one. You can’t just sort of decide, well, we’ll wait two years. That doesn’t mean we’re going to get it all done in one year, and some of the groundwork needs to be laid for some of these things.”

Also on his hefty priority list: legalizing marijuana, raising the minimum wage and expanding MAP grants.

Pritzker last week raised some eyebrows when he announced he’d be doubling the salaries of 20 of his top staffers out of his own pocket. But he said he did so to “attract and keep great talent for the state.” Those getting a double salary will have to publicly disclose their dual income, and Pritzker says they did not sign non-disclosure agreements. Pritzker, too, said in many cases the state salaries were lowered in an effort to not add to the state’s pension burden.

Asked if he’d be shelving out personal wealth elsewhere in state government, Pritzker said, “I don’t have any plans for that.”

Pritzker and his wife, M.K., kicked off traditional inaugural events in Springfield on Sunday, shaking hands and posing for pictures in the Old State Capitol. Stopping by the event, Sen. Dick Durbin — who was one of the first and staunchest supporters of Pritzker’s campaign — offered yet another stamp of approval, saying he expects to have a “close relationship” with the incoming governor.

“That was not the case the last four years,” Durbin said of Rauner.

Durbin said Pritzker has already shown that he’s willing to work with the other side of the aisle by asking former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar to serve on his transition team — and by stopping by a Republican fundraiser last week in Springfield after the General Assembly inauguration.

“Goodness sakes. Could you imagine the former governor walking into a Mike Madigan gathering in the Capitol?” Durbin said. “The fact that he’s making this a bipartisan effort I think reassures people across the state he’s really going to do his level best to find bipartisan solutions.”

Pritzker will have to work fast once he takes office, with his first budget address on Feb. 20 — just days before the Chicago mayoral election.

Pritzker said he understands the importance of working with Chicago’s next mayor, but he won’t endorse, despite many close friends in the mix, including Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza.

“I am focused on having a good relationship with the next mayor, and so it’s important to me to do what hasn’t been done over the last four years,” Pritzker said.

“I’m not intending to take a position in the election. And I have a number of friends and people that I know that are running,” he said. “They have certainly reached out to me and I have the support of a number of them — in fact, I would say most, maybe — during the election.”