SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Much like most of his first term in office, Governor Pritzker’s election year State of the State address was waylaid by an emergency.
“Well, certainly I was excited to have the legislature back in and being able to speak to a live audience,” Pritzker bemoaned at a Tuesday afternoon press conference at the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
When Pritzker delivers his fourth State of the State address on Wednesday at noon, he will have spent 684 of his 1,100 days in office under some form of pandemic-related emergency. Instead of delivering his speech to rousing applause from a crowded House chamber full of elected officials, he’ll stand alone and read from a teleprompter in the historic Old State Capitol where Abraham Lincoln once delivered his famous ‘House Divided’ speech.
Pritzker’s closest aides scrambled to find a backup venue after a severe snow storm forecast forced the House and Senate to send their members home and cancel the week of scheduled legislative session. Without an audience in the House, the governor had no grand stage to deliver his speech, and state law required him to deliver his budget on the first Wednesday in February this year.
“We’re prepared to do it,” he said. “We want to make sure that the message gets out to people, ‘we’re delivering the budget.’ And that’s a very official act, delivering the budget to the legislature.”
The missed moment would have represented some optical advantages of a step closer to returning to normal. The last large official speech the governor delivered in-person was weeks before the pandemic hit. In 2021, Pritzker pre-taped his State of the State address from a mass vaccination site at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
“Nevertheless, you know, here we are,” he said. “And what I am excited about is delivering the message. And of course, it’ll be delivered to the people of Illinois and the legislators, no doubt, will be tuning in.”
Republicans panned Pritzker’s speech, and his performance in office, predicting that without an active audience, his address will mirror much of his first-term as a “one-man show.”
“The fact that he continues to operate so unilaterally, I think, is problematic for democracy in general,” Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie (R-Hawthorn Woods) said. “No one person can have all the answers; and because of the geographic diversity of the legislature being all across the state, we have a lot of valuable things to bring to the table to help the governor through a kind of pandemic emergency like what we’ve seen over the past couple of years.”
Pritzker is expected to highlight the state’s resilience through adversity, and to offer tax breaks to families feeling the pressure of rising consumer costs. Pritzker’s deputy governor Andy Manar, a former state senator and top budget negotiator, teased the budget specifics with several media outlets this week, floating a property tax rebate worth up to $300, a temporary freeze on the one-cent grocery tax, and a temporary freeze on the gas tax hike, which Pritzker linked to inflation when he signed his 2019 capital infrastructure bill.
“People are hurting right now,” McConchie said. “Cost of living is a really big issue.”
Does the governor’s election year policy shift indicate it was a mistake to link the gas tax to inflation?
“No, that is actually a responsible thing to do,” Pritzker responded. “It should have been done back in the early 90s when the gas tax was put in place as it was.”
“Because we have seen inflation flare up, and because people are suffering the consequences of higher prices, I thought it was important to find different ways that we could lower the prices of all kinds of goods, including gas, including groceries, including property taxes, to deliver back to people the dollars that they pay into state government,” he said.
Several other states have found ways to use the flood of federal pandemic relief funds to offset other budget pressures and provide tax relief. Pritzker indicated during his speech on Tuesday his budget proposal could do the same. He also teased some talking points you may hear him repeat on the campaign trail as he warms up his stump speech and blames his Republican predecessor for “poor fiscal management,” and frames Democrats as the party of fiscal responsibility.
“If they’d been more responsible in the their budget proposals, if they had actually done something during the leadership of the last governor to put our state budget in good working order to give us surpluses, we’d be able to do more,” Pritzker said. “As it is, we’re doing what we can.”
McConchie filed a bill last year that would force the governor’s emergency powers to expire after 30 days. If he wished to extend them beyond one month, he’d have to seek approval from the legislature. McConchie’s plan never materialized, but Democratic governors in other states have also grown weary of the emergency.
Last month, Colorado’s governor Jared Polis (D) throttled back his use of executive power to force people to wear a mask in public, and argued the “emergency” phase of the pandemic has already ended now that safe, effective vaccines have arrived.
“You don’t tell people to wear a jacket when they go out in winter and force them to [wear it],” Polis said. “If they get frostbite, it’s their own darn fault. If you haven’t been vaccinated, that’s your choice. I respect that. But it’s your fault when you’re in the hospital with COVID.”
Polis’ arguments promoting personal responsibility over executive mandates did not seem to persuade Pritzker to phase out the state’s mask mandate, though he said he would like to end it “as fast as we can.”
“I think you saw that we had yet another variant that ripped through our state,” Pritzker said. “The Midwest actually was plagued with this, literally, figuratively — every one of the surrounding states around us in terrible condition. We actually weathered it as well or better than most; and it’s because we’ve kept in place of mask requirement for not only in schools with adults and kids, but also indoors.”
Would Pritzker use executive powers to confront other deadly emergencies, such as violent crime?
“I’ve treated the gun violence and criminal activity as a significantly dangerous and urgent matter,” Pritzker said. “You don’t need to declare a state of emergency for everything as long as you are treating it with great urgency.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article stated that the Governor’s staff went looking for a new venue “without an invitation from the House.” The Speaker’s office has since clarified they never disinvited the Governor, and they would’ve allowed him to deliver his address in the empty chamber.