LEXINGTON, Ill. — A question-and-answer session was held as part of the recent Illinois Agricultural Legislative Roundtable candidate forum following each gubernatorial candidate’s opening statements.
The questions were provided by those in the audience. Here are Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s replies to the questions read by Richard Guebert Jr., Illinois Farm Bureau president.
Are you satisfied with the Illinois progress in meeting the goals of the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy?
Pritzker: There’s more that we ought to do. Our Department of Agriculture is on this. They’ve been working with, I think, members of the Farm Bureau and a number of people in this audience on it.
Can you summarize Illinois’ current debt situation such as the bill backlog, unemployment fund, pensions, and what actions have you taken or would you take to help alleviate the situation?
Pritzker: There was about $9 billion bill backlog when I came into office. It had been as high as $17 billion and there was some refinancing of some of it, but we still had an enormous backlog. Bills were not getting paid for 250 days on average, and we had a structural deficit.
We have a constitutional requirement for a balanced budget in the state, but essentially the General Assembly and governors were signing unbalanced budgets, but calling them balanced. They were by hook or by crook, so to speak. The structural deficit of $2 billion remained.
So, my job coming in was payoff the bill backlog, make sure we’re reducing, eliminating the structural deficit and then go to work at paying the rest of the debt that we have in the state because you can’t do it unless you balance the budget.
Balancing the budget and surpluses is how you ultimately pay off short-term and then long-term debt, so that’s what we did.
We’ve had budget surpluses the last two years. We also held the line and made cuts in spending in places that were incredibly inefficient and reallocating those dollars so that ultimately when we were running surpluses we could use those surpluses to first pay on short-term debt and then long-term debt.
We paid down those short-term debts. We now literally have eliminated our bill backlog in the state. We run $2 billion of bills that get paid within 11 days now.
We also had a whole bunch of leftover debt that no one was paying attention to, but it sat on our books, and we were paying interest on it, like College Illinois. This was a massively failed program that had $240 million of debt that was owed to people who put their money in years ago to help pay for their kids’ education.
We owed that to the people of Illinois who put their money in, but it underperformed massively. We paid that $240 million debt off.
We had about $950 million that the state owed on group insurance for our state employees. These are all of the pockets of short-term debt the state had on its books, and we paid all of those things off.
The big one is pensions. We have a net pension liability in this state of about $130 billion.
That’s down from where it was a couple of years ago and because of the Tier 2 pensions system you’re starting to see more Tier 2 lower cost pensions take over and the higher cost Tier 1 pensions are diminishing. That’s good for taxpayers, but ultimately, we have to pay down that debt.
In this last year when we had a surplus, we put $500 million more into the pension system than we were required to by law because we want to pay down those pensions as best we can whenever we have a budget surplus.
With this notion of Chicago versus downstate, what do you plan to do to help unite Chicago more with downstate Illinois?
Pritzker: I just don’t believe in pitting one part of the state against another. It’s the obligation of the governor to serve everyone in the state and that’s why you’ve seen me do things like make sure our infrastructure bill, Rebuild Illinois, is investing massively in downstate Illinois, not just Chicago.
In fact, more than half of the dollars going into road, bridges, ports and so on are going into rural areas across central and southern Illinois. That’s a big change from the past.
Two, it’s important that we focus on the creation of private sector jobs across the rest of the state, not just northeast quadrant.
We made possible Walker’s Bluff Resort, for example, with hundreds of jobs building it and with hundreds of jobs that go into that new facility. That’s one example of private sector jobs.
Data centers are being built outside of Chicago areas. This is a bill that I pushed through and got passed.
There is now $13 billion being invested now in new data centers. That’s a lot of construction jobs and a lot of jobs running those centers.
What are we doing to bring the state together? Address the problems where they are. In central and southern Illinois, often those problems have been we have not enough private sector jobs and too much focus on just having the government created more government buildings and programs that will hire people and that’s the way to increase employment.
We need private sector jobs, so that’s been a focus of mine. We invested in the Cairo Port project, investing in ports all across southern Illinois that are great for agricultural shipping, as well as job creation across central and southern Illinois.
Do you support the continuation of Livestock Management Facilities Act and why?
Pritzker: I support it 100%. This has been important for growing our livestock industry in the state. I don’t think there are major changes that need to be made.
I would suggest that you’re the ones who are going to bring the ideas to us about how we ought to change that act. It isn’t something that’s going to be driven by urban representatives.
This is very important for us. Illinois pork production is the fourth largest in the country. We raise livestock all across the state. Let’s not do anything to diminish that industry.
In the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, there was a provision that would allow the use of eminent domain to take private property for a project that is not a public utility. Why do you feel that a project that is not a public utility should have the right to take private property?
Pritzker: That provision was removed from the bill before it passed. There is not an eminent domain provision in the bill that allows the state to take property under eminent domain any more than before there was a Climate and Equitable Jobs Act.
Under the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, the state established goals for the electrification of vehicles in Illinois. What are your plans for addressing how our current liquid renewable fuels like ethanol and biodiesel can be incorporated into this act?
Pritzker: I’ve been encouraging biofuels in the state. Yes, we are going to see gradual electrification of transportation in our state, but it is going to take a long time.
We have more than 4 million vehicles on the roads in Illinois today. We set a target of 1 million (electric) vehicles by 2030, so think about how long it will take before biofuels are not necessary.
It’s going to take an awful long time and in fact I’ve been encouraging the development of biofuels and talking to the federal government about encouraging the use of E10 and E15 all year-round.
Electrification does not mean the end of biofuels. It’s part of a longer trend that will keep biofuels alive and growing in the state for the next decade and more.
California is requiring all new cars, trucks and SUVs sold in the state to run on electricity or hydrogen by 2035 and and multiple states are possibly ready to follow. Can we have your commitment that Illinois consumers have the choice of what type of vehicles we drive and we do not follow California’s lead?
Pritzker: I had the opportunity to sign on to that pact and didn’t. Do I think we ought to see electrification? Yes, I’ve encouraged it. I think it’s a good thing for us to electrify, but it is going to be gradual. It is going to take time.
Illinois is not going to snap its fingers and require you to go buy an electric vehicle tomorrow.
As governor, would you support legislation to create statewide controls over the siting of wind or solar projects?
Pritzker: No, in fact I’ve specifically avoided that. We’ve got to have a continuous conversation, the one that we’ve been having for years now between the state and local governments and local control so that we decide together about siting.
I do think though as we look at broadband as one example of the challenges ahead, you’re seeing the developments in broadband of much more than just laying fiber and cable.
There are almost 3,000 Starlink satellites that have already been launched that are allowing people in Michigan and other parts of the country so far and starting in Illinois next year to connect with satellite.
That’s not going to require any impingement on people’s property rights. I really believe technology is going to help us overcome some of these challenges.
What are your plans to address the state’s over-burdensome estate tax laws so a family farm would not need to sell off land to pay for the estate tax?
Pritzker: I think it’s totally reasonable for us to have a conversation, especially in light of inflation, about lifting the cap on that so that the exemption is higher than it is today.
It is important that we maintain family farms in the state. This is part of the legacy and history and important future of our state.
We ought to continue to focus on family farms that we have today and not make changes that would ultimately lead to the breakup of family farms over generations. In fact, it is that generational change that I really believe in.