By CARL GREEN
Springfield IL – Illinois union workers and southern Illinois figured prominently as Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued an upbeat State of the State speech last week at the Capitol.
Pritzker said Illinois is already on the upswing after his first year as governor but has plenty left to accomplish, including cleaning up corruption in state politics.
In the meantime, the state has improved its financial situation, making a start on paying overdue bills and finding solutions for under-supported public employee pensions.
“We inherited a mess that was years in the making, and it had bipartisan roots. On Day One, it was clear to me that we had a government infrastructure that had withered from neglect and a lack of public trust,” he said. “I’m here to tell the carnival barkers, the doomsayers and the paid professional critics that the state of our state is growing stronger every day.”
Pritzker said the state now has 6.2 million jobs, the most ever, and its lowest unemployment rate ever. The December rate was 3.5 percent, down from 4.4 percent a year earlier.
“Last year, for the first time in nearly 20 years, every major region in our state was growing simultaneously – and even more remarkably, communities in southern Illinois like Carbondale have led that growth,” he said.
Pritzker said passing a bipartisan, balanced budget on time helped provide more money for job creation, career education and physical and mental health, he said. It also allowed credit rating companies to lower the state’s interest rates.
Pritzker put the spotlight on Build Illinois, the first bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in a decade, expected to create and support half a million jobs building and rebuilding public facilities.
“It’s clear that when we stand together in front of the public and talk about what we are doing together – to literally rebuild bridges and roads and childcare centers and schools – we restore a little bit of the public’s trust that has been lost in government institutions at all levels in the past few decades,” he said.
“Rebuild Illinois is about more than just roads, bridges and universities, it’s about jobs – middle class careers with wages and benefits, the kind of jobs that help you raise a family.”
Pritzker said applications to Illinois state universities increased for the first time in many years and the state has become the second largest producer of computer science degrees.
No State of the State speech would be complete without the governor holding up a few private citizens as examples of programs that are working.
In this case, Pritzker, called on young Reggie Marizetts, a first-year apprentice with Laborers Local 165 in Peoria, now learning the skills of his trade.
“Reggie intends to become a full-time journeyman and later to pursue his dream – opening a father-son construction company with his dad,” the governor said.
Pritzker found a southern Illinois story in Marion, where Bonnie Crackett almost had to close her highly ranked Heartland Kids Early Learning Center, dropping the staff from 21 to 14 and leaving parents worried about whether they would be able to keep their childcare so they could to their jobs.
“This year, with the increase in state funding for childcare that we announced in December, Bonnie is not only able to stay in business but has a plan for teacher training, rebuilding enrollment, classroom improvements and even beginning the process of hiring more staff,” Pritzker said.
KIDS AND SCHOOLS
With that increase in state funding, Pritzker said the state has placed 20,000 more children in childcare, thousands in pre-school and raised minimum teacher salaries.
The state also was able to fund the first expansion of vocational training and career and technical education in over a decade and expand college scholarships, including free tuition to the University of Illinois.
“Mark my words, Illinois will be the best state in the nation to raise a young family,” he said.
“Jobs and businesses are coming to this state because we are investing in the things that have always made us great – a skilled workforce, modern infrastructure, great public schools, top research universities, a robust agricultural sector and a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship that literally built into the steel frames of our skyscrapers. By almost every measure, over the past year we’ve improved the financial well-being, health, education and safety of the residents of Illinois, and we did it working together.
“We’re showing the rest of the nation what pragmatic, progressive leadership looks like, and putting our state back on the side of working families.”
Pritzker’s commitment to working families earns praise from Illinois lawmakers
State lawmakers were quick to react to Pritzker’s speech.
State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) said the speech reflected the governor’s and legislature’s commitment to working families.
“What we heard today was a vision for the state that reflects the interests of working families in rural and downstate communities,” Manar said. “Over the past year, we’ve made tremendous strides toward rebuilding our infrastructure, uplifting our public schools, making child care more accessible, and bringing high-speed internet to rural communities. I was pleased by the governor’s renewed commitment to these issues.
“The governor acknowledged the need to continue investing in downstate economies and displayed the resolve to work in good faith with Democrats and Republicans to deliver solutions to our state’s toughest issues, such as pension reform and relieving the property tax burden on Illinois families.”
State Rep. Katie Stuart (D-Edwardsville) said Pritzker’s results show what the state can do when it gets past partisan fights.
“I am proud of the progress Illinois has made in the last year – after years of partisan gridlock. It is clear that more work must be done to build a stronger Illinois,” Stuart said.
She said Pritzker’s proposed Fair Tax plan to increase tax rates on some of the state’s wealthiest would help “relieve the intense tax burden felt by working and middle-class families.”
State Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) said he is encouraged by the progress made under Pritzker’s leadership, including investing in job training programs for the next generation of skilled workers.
“To continue the progress of last year, I am committed to passing a balanced, bipartisan budget this spring to continue paying down the backlog of unpaid bills racked up by the Rauner administration, and investing in programs local families care about like public safety, schools and senior care,” he added.