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“Just because you can pass a bill doesn’t always mean that you should”

Tuesday, Jun 11, 2019

* My weekly syndicated newspaper column

If you talk to the Statehouse old-timers, they’ll tell you they haven’t seen such a productive spring legislative session since Gov. Jim Thompson’s days.

I think it’s probably safe to say that Gov. J.B. Pritzker cleared even that high historical bar this year, mainly because he had friendly Democratic super-majorities in both chambers. The Republican Thompson had to deal with a Democratic-controlled Legislature for almost all of his tenure.

Thompson, a master schmoozer and cajoler, didn’t try tackling nearly as many huge, generational changes all at once like Pritzker did in his first session. And even with Pritzker’s supermajorities, passing bills like almost doubling the minimum wage, changing the state Constitution to allow for a progressive income tax, rewriting almost all of the state’s abortion laws and legalizing recreational cannabis were seriously heavy-duty lifts.

On the afternoon of Friday, May 31, the last scheduled day of session, House Speaker Michael Madigan announced that the House could not possibly adjourn by the end of the day and would be in overtime session at least throughout the weekend. That meant all the tax and fee hikes and the gaming expansion to fund the massive $45 billion infrastructure bill would need three-fifths majorities, and everybody knew there was no way Madigan would take the political risk of putting 71 of his 74 members on those bills. Republicans, therefore, would be needed.

The rookie governor claims he didn’t panic, saying he “knew there was a path to dealing with all of it.”

”Going from a 60-vote requirement to a 71-vote requirement, having just gone through the ‘Fair Tax’ amendment, felt like a high bar, but I also knew that there was a path,” Pritzker said during a phone interview.

”Yeah, the odds have gone down of getting everything done, but there’s a path,” Pritzker said he felt at the time.

Asked at what moment he felt like everything would be OK, Pritzker pointed to House Republican Leader Jim Durkin’s demands later that Friday for pro-business legislation in exchange for his caucus’ support. Pritzker said he felt that “several” of Durkin’s proposals, which were developed by business groups “were relatively easy for us to come to an understanding about” because, the governor said, he agreed with them.

Pritzker inherited much of his money, but he has been involved in business most of his life. When Durkin broached the subject of repealing the state’s franchise tax, Pritzker said he quickly agreed. The franchise tax, which is essentially a tax levied for the privilege of doing business in Illinois, has been a bane to business groups forever. And Pritzker said he looked at it and decided “it didn’t need to be there, for small business especially.”

Gov. Thompson was endorsed by both the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois AFL-CIO when he sought his fourth and final term. Pritzker’s steep minimum wage hike, the graduated income tax and the dozens of pro-labor bills he’ll be signing in the coming weeks makes a repeat of that feat impossible. But there is no doubt that business lobbyists were pleasantly surprised by the session’s final days.

Pritzker also revealed to me that he began studying “Big Jim” Thompson’s tenure before taking office.

”It was important to me after I won the election to figure out what are the models out there for governing that have been effective and fit with who I am,” Pritzker said.

”Certainly, lots of people pointed to Jim Thompson,” Pritzker said, unprompted, of the former Republican governor. “Thompson was somebody who could talk to anybody (and) they would talk to him. He would go to the floor and speak with legislators. He had people go to the mansion to negotiate, to discuss and sometimes have a drink with. There was just a lot of bipartisan, across the aisle dialogue. That kind of leadership fits with who I am and my own background and people that I’ve worked with over the years.”

Thompson was, indeed, a talented governor who got a lot done. Sometimes, though, the things he got done came back to bite his state in its collective rear. Thompson’s annual three percent compounded pension payment increase for public retirees has forced the state to spend tens of billions of dollars, while exempting retirement income from state taxation dried up untold billions more from an important and growing revenue source.

So, just a cautionary note to our new governor that just because you can pass a bill doesn’t always mean that you should.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

12 Comments
  1. - Grandson of Man - Tuesday, Jun 11, 19 @ 9:41 am:

    It was a spectacular legislative session for the governor. He got pretty much everything he wanted or could expect for a first session. Democrats stood with him, which was his biggest gain, as they could have killed marijuana legalization and the graduated income tax amendment. He made deals with Republicans—so unlike the previous governor—which is a great sign for future deals.

    Kudos also to Sen. Minority Leader Brady for acting like a leader and helping get big things done, instead of constantly opposing and attacking, like some of his fellow Republicans.


  2. - DIstant watcher - Tuesday, Jun 11, 19 @ 9:46 am:

    George Ryan’s first spring session was pretty productive, too. People outside of the Capitol forget how good he was at working the chambers for bills, and not in dishonest ways. But yeah, this Spring tops that one.


  3. - seeing double many times - Tuesday, Jun 11, 19 @ 10:02 am:

    As an aside, does anyone know when LaGuardia is celebrating its 40th anniversary? Hard to tell from the LiveStream.


  4. - JoanP - Tuesday, Jun 11, 19 @ 10:05 am:

    =”It was important to me after I won the election to figure out what are the models out there for governing that have been effective and fit with who I am”=

    I continue to be impressed by Pritzker. “I want to learn” is a sweet change from the “I know everything” we just suffered through.

    Will he make missteps? Will he push for legislation to be passed that shouldn’t be? Of course, he will. But I daresay that, overall, Illinois will benefit from his tenure.

    (Don’t prove me wrong, J.B.)


  5. - Not a Billionaire - Tuesday, Jun 11, 19 @ 10:17 am:

    There was a lot of activity around the Constitutional convention ….The first income tax….supplemental freeway bonds….That was late sixties early seventies…Mostly Ogilvie. I was a little kid then but that era seems the only one really close though Thompson and to a lesser extent Ryan had success. Most of the rest of the time not much of negative.


  6. - Tommydanger - Tuesday, Jun 11, 19 @ 10:28 am:

    Governors can do many amazing things. The fact that Governor Thompson made time stand still will always endear him to me.


  7. - RNUG - Tuesday, Jun 11, 19 @ 11:12 am:

    I’ll defend Thompson’s giving the compounded 3% AAI since it was and pretty much has been equal to the long term CPI growth (even though we have been in a low inflation period for about a decade). Immediately prior to the 3%, there had been a non-compounded 1.5% for a number of years … but that was the late 70’s and early 80’s when inflation was running a double digits for about 5 years in a row. Not that many years before, there was no AAI or COLA at all. Back in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s once or twice every decade the Legislature would grant a minimal increase. Remember, this was in the days when state retirees did not participate in Social Security, so they tended to fall behind inflation and some even into poverty, costing the State in a different way.

    Viewed through this history, Thompson granting the 3% was thought to be a fair thing to do.


  8. - Ginhouse Tommy - Tuesday, Jun 11, 19 @ 11:23 am:

    Let’s hope that JB doesn’t pick up a fake accent when he goes to Southern ill. like Thompson did.


  9. - btowntruthfromforgottonia - Tuesday, Jun 11, 19 @ 11:56 am:

    It looks even better compared to the four years of scorched earth governing that was Rauner.


  10. - Illinifan - Tuesday, Jun 11, 19 @ 12:01 pm:

    People make the 3% into the boogie man. SS Colas have been double digits in the past

    Personally I think early retirements (age 55 and 35 years service for teachers) was too generous for teachers. There should also be a cap ($500k a year for UI AD Ron Guenther) is an example of excess. And, of course, the legislature not properly funding is a major cause of our problems.

    But the 3% is fair I think, especially since that is the ceiling.


  11. - Give Me A Break - Tuesday, Jun 11, 19 @ 12:32 pm:

    I’m wondering if Righter deciding to hang it up has to do with the fact his district is the heart of the GOP “say No to everything, kick Chicago out” area?

    When you see your leader deciding to get something done and play ball and you know your district won’t tolerate that, it may be time to go.


  12. - pool boy - Tuesday, Jun 11, 19 @ 2:52 pm:

    We will see how this all turns out. One thing for sure, JB owns all of this. Big Jim did the 3% COLA and hiring freeze (patronage), both of which people hate now.


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