CHICAGO, Ill. (WCIA) — A buoyant Gov. JB Pritzker started Tuesday’s regular COVID-19 update by celebrating the first vaccinations against the virus given to healthcare workers earlier in the day, then turned somber as he described the state’s “budget shortfall” — another byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic.
The state’s executive branch will cut more than $700 million, Pritzker announced, the “result of a months-long and ongoing review of agency spending.” A hiring freeze, operational cuts and grant reductions are items among the plan, according to a release from the governor’s office, as well as:
- Negotiations with AFSCME and other employee unions to identify $75 million in personnel cost adjustments, which could include furlough days.
- Creation of a Department of Corrections facilities closure work group to identify additional savings due to the lower offender population.
“Early on in our battle against COVID-19, my administration implemented a freeze on non-essential state government hiring and on travel,” Pritzker said. “Those continue today and will continue indefinitely. I have also implemented a significant reduction in vehicle and equipment purchases. And I have asked all departments to maximize the use of technology to reduce in person gathering costs, even once travel is deemed safer.”
The furlough days could mean a reduction of services to Illinoisans, or at least services delivered at a slower pace, although the governor emphasized the cuts are not intended to affect those related to coronavirus efforts.
In a statement issued later, AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch called the idea of enacting furlough days “grossly unjust.”
“State public health and emergency management employees have worked tirelessly to guide us through the challenges the coronavirus daily presents,” Lynch said. “Thousands of these frontline state employees have contracted COVID, hundreds have had to be hospitalized, many are suffering prolonged aftereffects, and, yes, some have died.”
“Ultimately, however, legislative action is needed. It is urgent that the Illinois General Assembly come into session immediately after the holidays to address the state’s fiscal crisis in a fair and equitable manner.”
Still, the cuts to the state’s budget will not be without human impact. Pritzker criticized his Republican predecessor, Bruce Rauner, for leaving “behind a multi billion dollar deficit, because of (his) unwillingness to accept a compromise.”
“Over the years, state government in Illinois has been notoriously hollowed-out,” he said. “For example, there are approximately 25% fewer state government employees today than there were two decades ago. Also, state government spending on education is now among the lowest in the nation. And while there used to be 3000 the Illinois State Police troopers patrolling our 58,000 square miles of Illinois, there are now only 1900. If anything, our schools and our public safety and health care deserve more advancements, not less. Cutting our budget will be by its very nature, painful, but the executive branch alone cannot legally address these multi year deficits unilaterally.”
Grant programs at many agencies will be among the slashed line items, at the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Local government parks and open land park grants will be frozen for 2020. School maintenance grants that are dependent upon casino gaming revenues will also frozen.
Pritzker, in part, blamed the situation on opponents of the Fair Tax earlier this year. The proposed state constitutional amendment would have removed the “flat” income tax and given the state the ability to tax people with higher incomes at a rate proportional to their level of income. The question failed on the ballot after a drawn-out campaign against it.
“I want to be clear: Because tax fairness was taken off the table, there will be a real human impact here. And while we’ve scoured the budget for ways to cause the least pain, I’m sorry to say that we simply cannot prevent these losses from touching the real lives of our residents,” Pritzker said.
The governor also called on the General Assembly to “come to the table” so that the state government can “collectively make decisions.”
The cuts announced Tuesday are a “first step” toward balancing the current year’s budget.