One day after a former state senator pleaded guilty to federal charges, Gov. J.B. Pritzker talked tough on corruption in the first-term Democrat's State of the State speech delivered before the General Assembly Wednesday.
Chicago Democrat Martin Sandoval, who had been the Senate Transportation Committee chairman, was charged with bribery and income tax evasion in connection with a scandal involving a red-light camera company.
Pritzker called for "real and lasting" ethics reform during this legislative session.
"We must root out the purveyors of greed and corruption – in both parties – whose presence infects the bloodstream of government. ... It's no longer enough to sit idle while under-the-table deals, extortion, or bribery persist. We must take urgent action to restore the public's trust in our government," Pritzker said.
The governor specifically addressed lobbying, one of several key components likely to be included in a report expected in the next 2 months from the Legislature's bipartisan ethics commission. Pritzker called for an end to the practice of lawmakers serving as paid lobbyists.
"It's time to end the for-profit influence-peddling among all elected officials at every level of government in Illinois. Disclosure of conflicts of interest and punishment for breaching them must be included in any ethics package for us to truly clean up government," Pritzker said.
In November, state Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, and other members of the House Republican Caucus introduced an expansive ethics reform package when other lawmakers were immersed in ongoing federal investigations. The focus on corruption gave Demmer hope that the reforms can pick up bipartisan traction.
"Corruption is one of our most serious problems in Illinois," Demmer said. "Several months ago myself and colleagues introduced sweeping proposals that were voted on, but I think the governor is interested now."
Aside from ethics reform, which was the cornerstone of the address, the governor tried to paint a rosy picture for Illinoisans.
"I’m here to tell the carnival barkers, the doomsayers, the paid professional critics – the state of our state is growing stronger each day," Pritzker said.
The Illinois economy is showing improvement, now supporting 6.2 million jobs, Pritzker said. That is the most jobs on record for the state, which now has the lowest unemployment rate in its history.
"We're already seeing positive signs from the pro-business reforms from the House GOP Caucus," Demmer said. "Businesses are willing to locate here if we make Illinois a place people want to bring new investments and jobs to."
Other wins the governor cited during his first year included the legalization of recreational marijuana, a $45 billion infrastructure plan, the increased minimum wage and local pension board consolidation.
The governor also addressed property taxes, plugging his plan to switch from a flat income tax rate to a graduated system that taxes a small percentage of the highest incomes at a higher rate. He also put a premium on early childhood education, child care and workforce development.
Local GOP lawmakers were left wanting for more substance in the address, particularly in regard to property tax relief and crafting a new budget.
"We can all agree that we want to have a balanced budget, but I didn't hear anything about how we get there," said state Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna.
McCombie also was disappointed by some of the speech's flat-out omissions.
"There was no discussion at all of agriculture, and that is our state's number one economic driver," McCombie said. I was also hoping to hear about outmigration, the census count and the role Fair Maps legislation plays in fighting corruption."
State Sen. Neil Anderson, R- Andalusia, shared some of the same concerns about what wasn't prioritized. He also mentioned agriculture, tax reform and redistricting as glaring omissions.
"Lacking from today's speech was any real solution to provide property tax relief. As a senator whose district borders Iowa, it’s especially imperative to me that we have serious conversations about relieving the burden places on homeowners," Anderson said in a news release.
Another local GOP lawmaker, took aim at the administration's proposed switch to a graduated income tax system, saying that Illinois needs growth, not more government from a party that hasn't earned taxpayers' trust.
"After repeatedly increasing your taxes to some of the highest in the nation, pushing jobs and industries out of Illinois and leading one of the largest job-growth programs for self-dealers in U.S. history, Illinois Democrats now want to convince taxpayers that they can lead us out of the crisis they created. It's unbelievable," Andrew Chesney, R-Freeport, said in a news release.
The spring session must also include the adoption of new clean energy legislation that reduces carbon emissions, promotes renewable energy, and brings more electric vehicles to the transportation sector, Pritzker said.