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Legal pot no pipe dream for Pritzker — hopes to pass ‘strong good bill’ in weeks

Gov. J.B. Pritzker unveils his graduated income tax plan during a press conference in his office at the Illinois State Capitol last month. File Photo. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP)

Gov. J.B. Pritzker unveils his graduated income tax plan during a press conference in his office at the Illinois State Capitol last month. File Photo. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP)

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker tried marijuana himself, “a long time ago.”

But it won’t be long before Illinois residents are able to smoke it legally, if the freshman governor gets his way.

The Chicago Democrat hopes to get a recreational marijuana bill passed before the end of the spring legislative session as part of an ambitious first year plan.

“I think the bill that will get introduced and passed is going to be a very, very, strong good bill,” he said Thursday.

That leaves only about seven weeks for Pritzker to reach his benchmarks when it comes to legal pot and his No. 1 priority, a graduated income tax.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday in his Capitol office, Pritzker discussed his hopes for legalized marijuana in the state, his evolution from opponent to proponent, how he overcame his concerns, as well as his past usage. On other topics, Pritzker talked of his offer to help Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot in stemming gun violence and in unpacking the city’s financial struggles.

And, of course, he spoke about the graduated income tax. But he tries not to call it that.

It’s a “fair tax” — a more digestible term that no doubt helps to market his plan. But it’s not so easy. Pritzker has a swear jar of sorts in his office. He has to put in money every time he doesn’t use the preferred “fair tax” name.

“Someone else in my office suggested something like that, and I thought it was a good idea. It turns out I’m the guilty party for the most part because people ask me questions that have the words ‘graduated income tax’ in or ‘progressive,’ and then I sometimes will parrot it back, and then I catch myself,” Pritzker said. “So yes, but it’s really my own swear jar.”

The billionaire — who will be paying 3% more on his taxes should his plan succeed — says he truly believes the proposal is “fair.” Pritzker says it would provide tax relief for 97% of Illinois families, or those who make $250,000 or less.  Ideas Illinois, the dark money group fighting the tax, calls his plan a “jobs tax” that will cripple the economy and prompt even more of an exodus of Illinois residents.

“I think the term for it, fair tax, is much more descriptive of what we’re trying to do, which is to be fair to people who have been treated unfairly for too many years under a flat tax system,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker, too, said he is “somewhat disappointed” at the lack of dialogue he’s had with Republicans about his plan. He said he is open to conversations regarding his proposed rates and the corporate income tax portion of the proposal.

“They could have come to talk about any of those things,” Pritzker said. “I’m here. I sit in the governor’s office. My door is open. … The most important part, I think, is that I’m open to conversations about it. I have risen the subject where I could with Republicans. But coming with proposals and having real conversations and negotiations, that’s something that I welcome. But you can’t sit on your hands and say no to everything. That’s what Bruce Rauner did for four years and that clearly didn’t work.”

After four months on the job, Pritzker’s Capitol office already looks lived in, with a well-stocked library of political books, and dozens of pictures of his children and the state’s new first lady, M.K. Pritzker. Gov. Pritzker has a plaque on his desk with the Latin phrase “Illegitimi non carborundum,” which translates to “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

The governor on Wednesday welcomed Lightfoot into that office, saying he didn’t offer any sort of advice to the fellow political newcomer, except to remind her about the importance of bringing in “great people into your administration into senior positions.”

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot shakes hands with Gov. J.B. Pritzker after they held a meeting together in his offices at the Illinois State Capitol Wednesday in Springfield. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP)

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot shakes hands with Gov. J.B. Pritzker after they held a meeting together in his offices at the Illinois State Capitol Wednesday in Springfield. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP)

The two also spoke about maintaining a regular dialogue.

“There is a lot that we need to share together about job creation, about economic growth and around, in particular, around gun violence and fighting gun violence,” Gov. Pritzker said. “The state has a lot to do with helping cities all over Illinois to reduce gun violence. … I made it clear to her as we enter the summer, which is always the most violent season of the year for every city in the state, that we’re going to be helpful to her and other cities around the state.”

J.B. Pritzker campaigned on a promise to legalize adult use of cannabis in the state. And the Democrat, who said he wasn’t always on board with legalization, said he has tried marijuana.

“I have tried marijuana, you know, in the past,” the governor said. “It’s been a long time.”

He said some of his earliest concerns about legalization stemmed from worries about teen use of cannabis.

“I have teenagers, and I was very concerned, just not knowing. I asked a lot of questions about how does this affect teen use,” Gov. Pritzker said. “And in Washington state — where that was the governor’s big concern there too — they did a very good job of showing there was no increase in teen use.”

As for the concerns of police associations across the state over how law enforcement will be able to determine whether a driver is impaired, he acknowledged there’s no current technology to measure impairment when it comes to cannabis.

Marijuana plant. File photo. | AP

“Necessity is the mother of invention, and it’s now clear that with 11 states already with legalized adult use cannabis, there are entrepreneurs out there that recognize that every police department is going to want something,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker said he has spent a “reasonable” amount of time studying other states that have legalized recreational marijuana, specifically Washington state. And he acknowledged there will likely be follow-up bills to the legalization measure. But he said legalization is crucial as a criminal justice reform element, to ensure the safety of cannabis in the state and to create jobs.

“This happened in medical cannabis. You start out and then you figure out this isn’t working out quite as well and you make tweaks along the way,” Pritzker said. “With legislation, nothing is perfect and so yes, along the way, it’ll improve.”