Party leaders, political observers assess past year, look ahead to 2020
By JERRY NOWICKI, REBECCA ANZEL and PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD — A tumultuous year in Illinois politics draws to its close as the historic legislative accomplishments of May and June give way to a flurry of ongoing federal investigative activity, resignations and indictments.
Central to the story of 2019 is Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Chicago Democrat and billionaire who spent more than $170 million of his estimated $3.4 billion fortune on a successful bid to unseat one-term incumbent Republican Bruce Rauner.
During the campaign, Pritzker positioned himself as a foil to Rauner and President Donald Trump and promised to usher in a wave of progressive policies. He also promised a new era of bipartisanship after four stagnant years that included a two-year budget impasse, which led to a ballooning backlog of unpaid bills and cuts to many state services.
Rauner’s unpopularity, combined with a national “Blue Wave” that saw Democrats retake several statehouses and governors’ offices across the country, helped Pritzker to a near 16-point electoral victory and propelled Illinois Democrats to veto-proof supermajorities in both chambers of the state Legislature.
Pritzker and fellow Democrats got to work quickly when the legislative session began, parlaying that electoral momentum into the February passage of a phased-in increase of the state’s minimum wage to $15 hourly by 2025.
As the months progressed, Pritzker worked with the General Assembly to turn several other campaign promises into legislative victories — legalization of adult-use recreational marijuana; a massive gambling expansion including the legalization of sports betting; a $45 billion capital infrastructure plan and the tax increases to pay for it; protection of rights to abortion in the state; and more. He also signed Illinois’ operating budget with vast bipartisan support.
But perhaps the most essential piece to Pritzker’s long-term agenda — one that the governor’s office estimates will generate more than $3 billion in added annual tax revenue — cannot become law without the approval of voters.
That measure — an amendment to the state’s constitution allowing lawmakers to levy higher income taxes on greater levels of income — will be on the November 2020 general election ballot.
But as the fight for the graduated tax gears up and some of the marquee policies of Pritzker’s first year near their 2020 implementation dates, the FBI is in the midst of a sweeping federal probe that has led to multiple resignations, indictments and raids of lawmakers and statehouse insiders.
Meanwhile, Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) announced plans to resign from his leadership post and retire from the chamber on January 19, setting up the state’s first majority party legislative leadership change in a decade.
Capitol News Illinois interviewed several party leaders and political observers to look back at 2019, discuss what could be on the agenda in 2020 and how the ongoing federal probes affect the legislative process.
Pritzker’s First Year
Leaders of both parties agree the state took steps forward in Pritzker’s first year, even if Republicans stand staunchly opposed to some of the marquee proposals advanced by Democrats.
“I thought we’d have a good session, but I did not expect it would be quite as historic as it was,” said Sen. Don Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park and one of five assistant majority leaders in the Senate.
The $39.9 billion operating budget, capital infrastructure plan that relies on a doubling of the state’s motor fuel tax, massive gambling expansion and legalization of adult-use recreational marijuana all received bipartisan support.
“I think it was a good year for bipartisan solutions,” said Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat and majority leader in the House. “Obviously, a lot of things we still disagree on, but those are philosophical things. It just goes to show that when we have common interests, we can work together to fix a lot of stuff.”
But House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican, said while the session may have ended on a bipartisan note, that was not how it began.
“Let’s just remember how we started the year,” he said. “First thing out of the gate with the governor was pushing through, I think, a very near-sighted approach towards the minimum wage, and one that could have been resolved and could have been negotiated with the support of the business community.”
Durkin said Republicans and many business leaders wanted a minimum wage bill that would reflect regional differences across the state.
The rollout of the increase will begin in January 2020, when the wage goes from $8.25 to $9.25 before hitting $10 on July 1. From 2021 to 2025, the wage will see a $1 bump every January until it levels off at $15.
“But the governor just took a, you know, one-size-fits-all approach toward it,” Durkin said. “And obviously to fulfill a campaign promise without, I believe, truly recognizing and respecting what the short-term and long-term effects that this will have on small businesses, nonprofits and particularly along our border communities with other states.”
Toward the end of the session, though, Durkin pushed for a series of pro-business reforms that paved the way for extensive Republican roll calls on the budget and capital bills.
Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) agreed with Durkin and characterized the session as “the good, the bad and the ugly” from the Republican perspective, noting he would push for changes to the minimum wage rollout based on geography in 2020.
“The governor was, in terms of communication, I think he was effective in a bipartisan way. Do I believe that he reached across the aisle on everything and worked with us? No,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), who sponsored the minimum wage bill, said after its passage, “the session just flew.”
“I knew that we would be very progressive and energetic and ready to do the work, since we had been in a stalemate for years,” she said. “…I wasn’t surprised we were able to get it done, I just didn’t know we actually could do everything with the time frame we had.”
Christopher Mooney, a professor of state politics at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said the cooperation on several issues was largely a counterweight to four years of inaction and infighting under Rauner.
Cullerton, the Senate president, agreed.
“It was a good combination of timing, where we had some pent-up demand because of the gridlock we had under Governor Rauner; it had been 10 years since the last capital bill — and there was a bipartisan effort on the capital bill, which is great,” he said. “At the end of the session, even though we had supermajorities, we worked with Republicans and got them to vote for a bipartisan budget in terms of the revenues for the budget as well as the capital.”
As 2020 approaches, however, Mooney said he expects to see some of the bipartisan goodwill dissipate.
“Initially (Republicans) have been happy to not have Rauner, but as time goes on, and has gone on this year, I think things have been settled down into more of the party debate over issues,” he said. “And I think they’re done being happy that Rauner’s gone.”
The parties are prepared for “war” on at least one issue in 2020 — the graduated income tax.
“We know that there will be a war on protecting taxpayer interests when it comes to this issue of altering our state’s constitution,” Brady said. “…We want to convince the business community that this will be defeated and they shouldn’t delay their investment in Illinois, their growth in Illinois.”
Harris, the House majority leader, said he believes the added resources are needed to further investment in public education and human services.
“I think when I go around my neighborhood … I think people get the fact that it’s appropriate for the people at the top end to pay more of their fair share and people of lesser means at the lower end of the economic scale to pay less in order to support our state,” he said.
Mooney said he expects the measure to “be an effective test of Pritzker,” and said it’s an “even money” bet as to whether it will pass.
“I think the governor’s going to have a hard time selling it. The opposition has a very good argument to say, ‘More taxes? You trust these guys?’ That’s all you have to say, we’ve been in such trouble for so long,” Mooney said.
Pritzker has already shown he is willing to dedicate his personal fortune to support the graduated tax, contributing $5 million in early December to the Vote Yes for Fairness ballot initiative committee which is raising support for the measure. A likely counterweight to that committee is the Vote No on the Blank Check Amendment ballot initiative committee, a business-tied group which had not reported any donations as of Dec. 18.
To pass, the measure will require approval from 60 percent of those voting on the question or the majority of those casting ballots in the election.
If the measure is successful, a rate structure passed by the General Assembly this year will kick into effect. Per that structure, those making less than $250,000 annually will see their income tax decrease or remain at the current 4.95 percent rate, while those making above that amount will see higher rates, up to a maximum 7.99 percent for those making more than $1 million annually.
Harris said failure of the ballot initiative would mean “some pretty tough decisions.” He pointed to public education, in which the state has increased its investment by more than $700 million over the past two years.
“If we have to start going backward and shift more of the cost of education back to local school districts and just force more property tax increases, that’s a very bad result,” he said.
Cullerton, who will be retiring in January, said one alternative is an increase to the current 4.95 percent flat tax.
“If it doesn’t pass, the same amount of money can be garnered by a 1 percent income tax raise across the board,” he said.
When asked if he thought failure of the graduated tax initiative would mean tax increases elsewhere, Brady responded, “I hope not.”
“I hope what they (Democrats) focus on is economic growth, which will drive natural revenues to the state and increase and enhance the livelihood of our residents,” he added.
Federal Probes and Ethics Reform
But the graduated tax and the policies of Pritzker’s first year have been overshadowed lately by the sweeping federal probe of alleged state government corruption.
Just two months after Pritzker signed the expansive capital infrastructure plan — the first one passed by the General Assembly in a decade — the Statehouse office of one of the bill’s lead architects was raided by the FBI.
Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat who was chair of the Senate Transportation Committee at the time, eventually submitted his resignation from the chamber effective Jan. 1.
News quickly followed of raids on a former lobbyist for ComEd, an electric utility company with close ties to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago. Later it was revealed that federal agents also executed search warrants in several small towns in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, apparently searching for information about red light camera contracts.
Neither Sandoval nor any ComEd representatives have been charged with wrongdoing despite the ongoing investigations.
In October, however, Rep. Luis Arroyo, a Chicago Democrat, was arrested on charges that he tried to bribe an unidentified state senator who was later revealed by federal affidavits to be wearing a wire for investigators.
Before any of that, state Sen. Tom Cullerton, a distant cousin of the Senate president, was indicted in August on charges he collected a salary as well as health and pension benefits from a labor union “for which he did little or no work.” He remains in the Senate.
The constant flow of headlines pertaining to alleged corruption put ethics reforms at the top of the agenda for the fall veto session, which produced measures tightening disclosure laws for lobbyists and creating a commission to study potential changes to ethics laws.
Harmon said it will be “incumbent upon” lawmakers in 2020 to “demonstrate our responsibility to voters.” He said the General Assembly should overhaul statements of economic interest and institute “an even greater separation” between legislative responsibility and fundraising obligations.”
“I hope (the federal investigations) reminds us all of the importance of the public trust we hold and that we can only lead by example, even in the face of these outliers,” he added.
Lightford, the Senate majority leader, said she did not believe the ethics probe slowed down lawmakers’ progress, as those under investigation do not represent the “full body” of the Legislature.
“I think it just showed that we’re even more committed to making sure that the personal failures of a few members does not get in the way of the work we’re doing and how we’re hoping to address problems to improve our state,” she said.
Harris, who was named to the ethics commission by Speaker Madigan, said it will draw upon best practices in other states, bills filed by both parties in the General Assembly, think tanks and others to craft effective ethics policies. The commission is scheduled to report its findings in March, and he said it would discuss pushing out reforms before that deadline.
“I don’t want this to be a kicking-the-can-down-the-road exercise,” he said. “I don’t want it to be a grandstanding exercise. I want people to come in there and do real work. I think everyone in the state agrees that we have some real problems with some of this lobbyist stuff and the ethics, governmental ethics stuff, and transparency and accountability, and we need to step up and fix them.”
Brady, who criticized what he said is a partisan tilt to the commission, said he will “continue to be hopeful” that it does its job.
“But at the end of the day, what really needs to happen is all these investigations, all these concerns about members of the General Assembly wearing wires, needs to come to rest,” he said. “And the federal government needs to give us some conclusion on the illegal activities which are already illegal regardless of ethics reform.”
Mooney was less optimistic, saying the platitudes put before a task force don’t always translate into effective legislation, because the general public is more interested in headlines proclaiming “ethics reform” than they are of minute details of the reforms.
“People that are affected by the ethics reforms, they’re much more into details. …The general public’s not that interested. Obviously, they just want people to knock it off,” he said. “But the people that are involved, the lobbyists and whatever and the legislators that these restrictions are imposed upon, they would like to make them as loose as possible.”
Senate Leadership Change
The surprise retirement announcement of the state’s top senator earlier this year joins the federal investigations in creating uncertainty for the 2020 political agenda.
President Cullerton told reporters at the end of this year’s fall veto session that his reason for leaving was to spend more time with family. Democratic Senate caucus members are scheduled to choose his successor on Sunday, Jan. 19, and several have been jockeying for position in recent weeks.
Mooney, the UIC professor, said the dynamic in the Senate will be an interesting one to watch in 2020.
“When you’re running for leader, you hand out goodies,” he said. “…That’s how you get it. You give out favors. But once you’re in, you owe people stuff.”
Cullerton said becoming a leader is a “humbling” experience.
“It’s very humbling, because you’re asking your peers to elevate you and you’re reminded of your shortcomings by your colleagues. They’re folks who don’t say, ‘I’ll vote for you,’ right away. You have to win them over. You’re constantly being reminded of your shortcomings. … That’s where the humility comes in,” he said.
Cullerton said he plans to not vote on his successor and has chosen not to endorse a candidate.
While the change to the Senate will be the first in majority leadership since Cullerton assumed the office of president in 2009, House Speaker Madigan will remain in the position he has held for all but two years since 1983.
Through a spokesperson, Madigan declined to be interviewed for this article but distributed a statement to Capitol News Illinois.
“This upcoming legislative session will largely focus on passing a responsible, balanced budget. While we accomplished quite a bit last session, there’s plenty of work that remains to be done. I look forward to working with the legislative leaders and the governor on another productive session that puts working families first,” the speaker said in that statement.
The Next Session
The governor reiterated his commitment to passing ethics reforms and laid out some of his other 2020 agenda items at a news conference in Chicago earlier this month.
He said a top priority will be addressing the state’s $137 billion pension debt, though he did not go into specifics. He also said he was focused on expanding early childhood education in the state, further reforming the criminal justice system and “expanding opportunities for working families to get ahead.”
“I’ve talked a lot about lowering the cost of health care, lowering the cost of child care, lowering the cost of education so that we can raise the standards of living for people who are working in our state in addition to creating jobs for competition for labor so that we’re lifting up their wages while we’re lowering their day-to-day costs,” he said.
Some observers said the federal probes into ComEd’s lobbying practices and their connections to Madigan’s office have hampered another of Pritzker’s campaign promises — addressing climate change by putting Illinois on a path to 100 percent carbon-free energy use.
“It’s on life support right now,” House Republican Leader Durkin said of energy reforms. “And until we get a full understanding of what is going to happen with the investigations that are currently related to ComEd, and also members of the Legislature, I don’t see any desire for the Legislature to take up that particular piece of legislation”
But Harris said the Clean Energy Jobs Act will be on the top of the agenda for House Democrats, despite the ComEd investigation having “some effect” on its prospects.
“But you know, there are a lot of different players involved in the whole energy discussion,” he said. “You have the different solar providers, you have wind providers you have downstate fossil fuel providers who are trying to get things. You have Exelon, which is a nuclear generator which has some specific asks. So, yeah, there’s a lot of moving pieces, but from what I hear from people who are involved in those negotiations, … they seem to be moving along.”
The governor also said he would renew a legislative push to make a Chicago casino more feasible, as the $45 billion capital plan depends, in part, on revenues from such a facility.
Harris said much of the focus in 2020 will also be on making sure some of the newly created programs in 2019 can be successfully implemented.
Durkin said House Republicans plan to focus heavily next year on two issues: ethics reform and overhauling the way the General Assembly redraws legislative and congressional districts each year — a proposal they refer to as “fair maps”
Durkin said the mapmaking issue should be brought to voters in the form of a constitutional amendment ballot question.
“That is whether or not they should take the legislative map-drawing for the Legislature and Congress out of the hands of the Democrat power brokers in Springfield and leave it to an independent commission. … That is the one way in which you can clean and get rid of the culture of Springfield,” he said.
Brady, the Senate Republican Leader, echoed that sentiment, pointing to a Pritzker campaign promise to veto partisan legislative maps.
“I could only take Gov. Pritzker at his word that he will not sign a gerrymandered, unfair map,” he said. “I think he knows the best way to get there is to remove the opportunity that two people have, the president of Senate and the speaker the House, to draw the map.”
He also said he is looking forward to hearing recommendations from a property tax reform task force that was established last year so the General Assembly can get to work on the issue.
While it is still unclear who will lead the Senate in 2020, Majority Leader Lightford, who is running among her caucus for the office of president, said a focus will be “working on business development and business growth, and attracting more jobs” to Illinois, as well as retaining high school graduates.
PHOTO: Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, speaks to reporters Oct. 29 at the Capitol in Springfield during the first week of the fall veto session. At the conclusion of the session Nov. 14, Cullerton announced he would be retiring from the Senate in January. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Peter Hancock)