Pritzker making big promises but not discussing impact on taxpayers

It didn't take long for Gov. J.B. Pritzker to up the ante on state spending.

At his first official news conference Tuesday, Illinois' new governor announced he was reinstating raises for state employees, called step increases, that his predecessor froze in 2015 during an ongoing contract dispute with the AFSCME union.

Pritzker, who also on Tuesday signed an executive order to improve transparency within state government, wouldn't answer questions about who would be included in receiving them, how much the pay raises would cost taxpayers, and how the state would pay for them.

We might have some idea, though.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request last year from Illinois News Network, the administration of former Gov. Bruce Rauner estimated the cost of implementing the step increases in Fiscal 2019 at more than $170 million.

We're a little more than halfway through the fiscal year so, assuming back pay raises aren't included, that puts the cost at about $85 million over the next six months, much more in future fiscal years.

Maybe, anyway.

We won't know for sure until the Pritzker administration tells us.

Whatever the number is, it's unbudgeted. And the state already has a budget deficit of more than $1 billion and a backlog of unpaid bills of $7.5 billion.

"Today, my administration is taking the first steps to move our state forward to have workers' backs," Pritzker said in announcing the raises.

I'm all for having workers' backs. But let's be clear: This is a small subset of workers we're talking about, maybe 20,000 or so. Again, we don't know for sure because Pritzker wouldn't tell us.

So who's going to pay for these raises and the other growing expenses we can't afford? The state's much larger group of private sector workers - according to U.S. Census data, there were more than 5.5 million Illinoisans in the workforce in 2016 - who already pay among the highest taxes in the country.

Who has their backs?

And get this: Even without the pay increases since 2015, Illinois state government workers are the second-highest paid in the country when adjusted for cost of living, according to financial watchdog

Back to the transparency executive order:

"Our state's hardworking residents deserve to know how taxpayer money is being spent, and I will ensure that transparency is a core value of my administration," Pritzker said. "By shining a light on how the state is and isn't living up to its responsibility to our citizens, we can start making real improvements in the lives of families across Illinois."

Those are good, strong words that I wholeheartedly support. But, of course, actions speak louder than words.

Pritzker is promising pay raises for state workers but not telling us how much they'll cost or how he will pay for them.

One of the new governor's primary campaign promises was to work to change the state constitution to allow for a graduated income tax, one in which higher earners pay more. But he wouldn't then and he still won't tell us what rates he'd seek and at what income brackets.

Are Middle Class Illinoisans see income tax increases to pay for Pritzker's increased spending? We don't know because he's not saying.

That's not transparency.

Pritzker is still in his first week on the job. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But he can't tax-and-spend Illinois out of its fiscal woes, and he needs to be more open with all of us.

Dan McCaleb,, is editor of Illinois News Network and the digital hub

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