Editorial | Rhetoric vs. reality?

Editorial | Rhetoric vs. reality?

The recent legislative session was historic — but in a good or bad way?

Gov. J.B. Pritzker could hardly wait to take a victory lap when the House and Senate adjourned their recent session after passing a slew of Pritzker-proposed measures.

In celebration mode, the newbie politician celebrated what he called "one of the most ambitious and consequential legislative sessions" in state history.

There is no doubt about that. In an orgy of bill passing, the supermajority Democratic Legislature approved Pritzker's proposed $39.9 billion budget, a $45 billion construction program and a slew of new taxes to pay for it, a stunning expansion of gambling, which includes a Chicago casino, and far broader access to abortion that includes repeals of bans on some late-term abortions.

Finally, legislators — per Pritzker's request — agreed to put a measure on the November 2020 ballot asking voters to repeal the current flat-tax mandate in the Illinois Constitution and replace with it with the authority to levy higher tax rates on higher levels of income.

The progressive-tax amendment is the big kahuna in Pritzker's legislative program because if passed, it will allow legislators endless opportunities to fiddle with tax rates to obtain the many, many billions of dollars in new revenue both they and Pritzker desire.

While the size and cumulative effect of all those programs is indeed stunning, it comes as no great surprise that the liberal Pritzker and the liberal Democratic supermajority were able to work together hand in hand. After all, they see eye to eye on most things.

That's why the only thing surprising about this body of work is that some people appear to be surprised. What would have been surprising is if Pritzker hadn't gotten most, if not all, of what he wanted from the House and Senate.

However impressive the size of these initiatives, the wisdom of some — even most — of what the Legislature and Pritzker have wrought is open to question. The best one can say about them is that time will tell.

Pritzker, of course, doesn't share that view, and he went overboard in his assessment of the wonderfulness of it all.

"Illinois is back. ... We've got a great future," he said.

Unfortunately, Illinois is definitely not back. Its future is as bleak as ever.

The state remains effectively bankrupt, its financial situation exacerbated (if that's possible) by the tax and spending spree the Legislature just wrapped up. Nothing the Legislature did is going to change that.

Is moving from de facto legalization in the form of decriminalization of marijuana to outright legalization the revenue- and justice-generating panacea that Pritzker claims? The law-enforcement community doesn't think so, and neither do public-health experts and advocates for the mentally ill.

Is a dramatic expansion of gambling going to satisfy government's unlimited appetite for more revenue? There are already unmistakable signs that the current oversupply of gambling outlets — lottery, casinos, racetracks and video gambling — are cannibalizing each other's business.

Is the $45 billion capital spending bill a measured approach toward this state's infrastructure needs or another in a series of ill-conceived pork fests that will direct too many tax dollars to places they shouldn't go?

As for Pritzker's proposed progressive-income-tax amendment, it's not a done deal and might not become one even if the governor, as expected, spends many millions of dollars from his personal multibillion fortune to pass it next year.

Voters are rightly skeptical of government and properly disdainful and distrustful of their elected officials. Are they really prepared to give Pritzker a blank check based on his promise to levy higher income taxes only on "millionaires and billionaires"?

Those are the known knowns. But don't forget about unknown unknowns lurking in the background and yet to be discovered.

One already has come to the fore — the accidental pay increase legislators approved for themselves.

There will be more coming.

House Speaker Michael Madigan's habit of waiting until the last legislative minute and then pushing everything through at warp speed is a great way to play hide and seek with the public. It's for those reasons and more that voters should delay celebrating the Legislature's handiwork. They were certainly productive in terms of volume, but the jury is still out on whether the output is anything other than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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