SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker stressed additional funding for education in his $49.6 billion budget proposal Wednesday while also using the occasion to blast “a virulent strain of nationalism” that he said has infected the national debate over school curricula and the content of library shelves.

“There is a virulent strain of nationalism plaguing our nation, led by demagogues who are pushing censorship, with a particular attack right now on school board members and library trustees,” Pritzker said.

The remarks came as the Democratic governor delivered a combined budget and State of the State address, speaking in the Illinois House chamber to a full joint session of the General Assembly for the first time since before the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

As Pritzker embarks on a second term, he’s stirred speculation about potential White House ambitions by entering the fray on national issues and presenting himself as a progressive foil to other possible presidential aspirants such as Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who’s courted conservative voters with his restrictive education policies.

“It’s an ideological battle by the right wing, hiding behind a claim that they would protect our children, but whose real intention is to marginalize people and ideas they don’t like,” Pritzker said. “This has been done in the past, and it doesn’t stop with just snuffing out ideas.”

“Our nation,” he said, “has a great history, and much to be proud of. And I want my children to learn that history. But I don’t want them to be lied to. I want them to learn our true history, warts and all. Illinois’ young people shouldn’t be kept from learning about the realities of the world. I want them to become critical thinkers, exposed to ideas that they disagree with, proud of what our nation has overcome, and thoughtful about what comes next.”

While occasionally straying into broader political arguments, Pritzker spent much of his roughly hourlong speech laying out specifics of his spending plan for the budget year that begins in July and touting the “remarkable” progress made toward stabilizing the state’s finances during his first term despite the uncertainties brought on by COVID-19.

“Fiscal responsibility isn’t easy, nor is it a one-time fix. It’s an annual effort that requires persistence. It requires conservative revenue estimates, as all of my budget proposals have,” Pritzker said. “But when done right, consistent balanced budgets strengthen the institutions our residents rely upon, creates new opportunities for success, and makes life easier for the people of Illinois.”

The governor’s budget proposal, which accounts for projections of a mild recession in the coming months, doesn’t include any major tax or fee increases, or any significant spending cuts.

While not once using the words “Republican” or “Democrat” and avoiding contentious issues such as his efforts to end cash bail and ban high-powered semi-automatic weapons, Pritzker emphasized that it was his party that led the charge in improving the state’s financial outlook after the havoc caused by a two-year budget standoff under his predecessor, GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner.

“In the age-old fight between happy warriors and misery’s carnival barkers, we’ve shown that if we resolve to do it, happy warriors win every time. And we are winning,” Pritzker said, employing a label he frequently slaps on Republicans.

“You, the majority of the General Assembly, are succeeding. You, the majority of the people of Illinois who elected the General Assembly, the constitutional officers, and me, are succeeding. Together, we’ve slogged through the tough times and are making the responsible decisions for our future,” he said.

Pritzker said his efforts to rebuild a state social service safety net “will finally have reversed the hollowing out that occurred in human services under the previous administration if we are able to hire up enough staff in this very tight labor market. We are cautiously optimistic that we can do so.”

Pritzker, who made advocacy of abortion rights a main plank in his reelection bid against Republican Darren Bailey, an abortion opponent, also announced the creation of a “hotline” to assist women from across the country to obtain the procedure in Illinois.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker applauds a guest as he delivers his combined budget and State of the State address, Feb. 15, 2023, at the Illinois State Capitol.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks to a joint session of the General Assembly on Feb. 15, 2023, in Springfield.

“From transportation and lodging to insurance coverage options, the hotline will help patients traverse a complex and overwhelmed system,” he said, adding that he was proposing $5 million for training to address the shortage of reproductive health care workers.

“Let’s not pull any punches. This is a result of a national conservative crusade to legislate against the most intimate matters of a woman’s basic health care,” he said.

“I’m sure that there are some elected officials who would like us to stop talking about abortion. Well, too bad. There are women in this country right now who are facing untold mental and physical anguish because of the fall of Roe v. Wade,” he said. “Here in Illinois, women know their rights are protected, but that doesn’t take away our obligation as Americans to speak up for the rest of the nation.”

If adopted by the Democratic-controlled legislature, Pritzker’s plan for the budget year that begins July 1 would mark a nearly 8% increase over the $46 billion budget approved last spring.

Lawmakers have since approved nearly $4 billion in additional spending for the current year based on higher than anticipated revenue, meaning that under Pritzker’s plan, state spending would actually decrease by about $350 million next year.

The centerpiece of the plan is a $250 million package aimed at giving a boost to the youngest Illinois residents and their families, including $75 million to add 5,000 slots to existing state funded preschool programs that currently serve about 94,000 children. The governor has called for adding a total of 20,000 slots over four years in programs that prioritize placement of children at risk of academic failure.

Pritzker implored lawmakers to join him in supporting the plan, dubbed “Smart Start Illinois,” which he called a “long-term investment that has the greatest return for taxpayers with the most positive social and economic impact that I have ever come to you with.”

“It will make our state the best place in the nation to raise young children,” Pritzker said.

The governor campaigned on making public higher education tuition-free for families who earn at or below median income, and to that end proposes increasing funding for state’s Monetary Award Program, or MAP grants, by $100 million.

That, combined with federal Pell grants, should be enough to make community college tuition-free for nearly all families who qualify, but would only cover about 40% of those who want to attend four-year schools, according to the governor’s office.

In all, education, from preschool through college, makes up roughly a quarter of Pritzker’s proposed spending for the coming year from the state’s general fund, which covers most day-to-day operations.

Of that, $10.3 billion would go to preschool through high school, which includes a $350 million increase for elementary and secondary schools as required under a funding plan signed into law by Rauner. Advocates have been pushing for even larger increases — up to $1 billion a year — to meet the state’s funding target.

Higher education would see an increase of more than $200 million, bringing total state funding to nearly $2.5 billion. In addition to the increased funding for tuition grants, public universities and community colleges would receive $100 million more for operations, a 7% increase, which the Pritzker administration said is the largest boost in two decades.

As part of his attack on censorship, Pritzker said investments in education are “meaningless if we become a nation that bans books from school libraries about racism suffered by (baseball heroes) Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron, and tells kids that they can’t talk about being gay, and then signals to Black and brown people and Asian Americans and Jews and Muslims that our authentic stories can’t be told.”

Beyond education, spending would remain relatively flat, though the plan includes additional money to hire Illinois State Police troopers and prison workers, aid the homeless, and help local police departments purchase body cameras and retain officers.

Pritzker proposes making the legally required $9.8 billion contribution to the state’s significantly underfunded pension plans, which have combined debt of $139 billion. The governor also proposes making another $200 million contribution to the funds from surplus revenue in the current year on top of previous extra contributions totaling $500 million.

Acknowledging failures on the part of local governments to end food deserts, Pritzker announced the creation of a $20 million Illinois Grocery Initiative to assist municipalities and independent grocers to open or expand stores in underserved rural and urban areas.

“Government at the state and local level has tried hard to attract big retail food chains to neighborhoods that need them with tax incentives and flashy ribbon-cutting ceremonies,” he said. “But after the cameras leave, often so do the commercial chains — leaving poorer rural and urban communities high and dry.”

Pritzker also is proposing another $30 million for a state-run violent crime witness protection program, similar to a proposal he made last year for the current budget. However, figures provided by the Illinois comptroller’s office earlier this month show the state has spent only about $67,000 of the $30 million set aside for this fiscal year. The money has been spent on employer-related expenses such as insurance and office equipment.

ICJIA said earlier this month that the agency was still in the process of establishing the guidelines for the program and that no law enforcement agencies have applied for the funding.

As the budget negotiations get underway in the legislature, Pritzker’s plan will face not only pushback from minority party Republicans, but pressure from some fellow Democrats to increase spending in certain areas. In particular, some Democrats continue to push for elementary and secondary education funding increases that are larger than what Pritzker has proposed.

State Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas said “it’s very well established” that the governor’s proposed increase won’t meet the state’s goal of providing adequate funding for public schools by 2027.

The Chicago Democrat said she and other members of the Legislative Latino Caucus “will definitely be deep in those negotiations to see how much more we can add on top of that.”

Lawmakers may need to look for “ideas to find some additional revenue that will dedicate solely to” school funding, said state Rep. Will Davis, a Homewood Democrat who chairs the House appropriations committee for elementary and secondary education.

Davis said the state should add at least $200 million on top of Pritzker’s proposal to meet the minimum $350 million increase under the state’s education funding formula.

“We need to make sure that we try to get to full funding because when we talk about underfunded schools, many of them exist in Black districts,” Davis said.

The GOP minority raised concerns about spending for new programs that one top Republican believes could lead to a tax increase.

“Last year, the governor proposed a spending plan, and the majority party added $4 billion to that spending plan throughout the year,” said Senate Republican Leader John Curran, of Downers Grove. He expressed concern over Pritzker proposals for new spending in some areas “especially at a time we’re likely headed toward a recession.”

House Republican Leader Tony McCombie of Savanna asked whether there’d be a “sustainable funding source” for the new spending in Pritzker’s proposal.

“When you have a new program that starts, how are you going to pay for it next year, the second year, the third year?” she said. “So, although the ideas and the intent may be good, I’m just very concerned how we’re going to pay for it.”

Members of the most conservative contingent of the GOP caucus bristled at Pritzker’s partisan jabs.

“We’re still ‘carnival barkers,’” Republican Rep. Adam Niemerg of Dieterich said. “Well, he’s the governor, and he is running the so-called carnival, and he’s running it right off the leftist cliff.”

Pearson reported from Chicago.

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