ILLINOIS (WCIA) — Former two-term Republican Governor Jim Edgar has no plans to publicly endorse any of the four candidates running for his old job this election cycle, including the current incumbent whom he backed in 2014. But does Edgar have a horse in the race? You bet he does.
Edgar, an increasing critic of Governor Bruce Rauner during and after the state’s unprecedented budget impasse, has been coaching Democrat J.B. Pritzker in private discussions about how to woo voters and dodge controversy all while leaving himself enough room to maneuver in office.
“I would hope that whoever is going to be the governor has as much flexibility as possible to deal with the issues,” Edgar said during a Monday interview on campus at Millikin University.
Edgar talked fondly of Pritzker, calling him “bright” and someone who can “learn on the job.”
The two men met in 2007 when they both sat on the board of YouBet.com, an early gambling website for horse racing. Less than two years after Pritzker joined the board at YouBet, the state legalized advanced-deposit wagering, but only granted a license to four companies. YouBet was one of them. It raked in $34.7 million in its first year operating officially on the books, according to records kept by the Illinois Racing Board, though the website and operation were up and running before the state legalized it.
The company has since merged with a website called TwinSpires, a Churchill Downs entity that was also a charter member approved for a business license in Illinois. Last year, TwinSpires handled 46 percent of all legal online horse racing bets placed in Illinois.
Pritzker, like Edgar, wants to legalize sports gambling in Illinois. After a speech to the City Club of Chicago last Friday, Pritzker floated the idea as a potential revenue stream to pay for some of the items on his political wish list.
From Edgar’s vantage point, the more promises a politician makes on the campaign trail, the more hobbled they can become in office.
“I don’t think anybody should explain a blueprint right now on all these issues,” Edgar said Monday.
The former governor, who was widely seen as a popular, moderate state executive, argued that Pritzker should focus on winning election now, and splitting hairs in the statehouse later.
“I would be very cautious on too many specifics before the election because they don’t have all the information, and they won’t have the information until they’re in the office,” he said. “And they won’t really know what might work and not work until they sit down with the legislative leaders in a non-election environment and try to get things done.”
In a non-scientific poll of WCIA’s Facebook audience which largely consists of people in Central Illinois, 83 percent of respondents said candidates running for governor should give voters specific promises about their plan to resolve the state’s pension crisis before the election. 960 people participated in the online poll, though there is no indication how many of them are registered or likely voters.
On the campaign trail, Pritzker appears to be heeding Edgar’s advice. When pressed for specifics about his proposed progressive income tax plan last Friday, Pritzker declined and instead offered “basic principles” about his plan which he acknowledges could not be implemented until Fiscal Year 2022.
Pritzker did say the “vast majority of the people in the state are getting overtaxed and ought to get a tax break.” He said “people who are child care workers, nurses and construction workers shouldn’t pay the same rate of tax, of income tax, as people who are much wealthier.”
The average registered nurse with job experience makes $82,241 annually, according to data from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. The average construction laborer makes $72,110 each year. Pritzker was asked if people earning $80,000 or less can expect a tax cut under his administration. He would not make that pledge, but said “where the cut offs are, where the plan comes out is going to be a process of negotiation.”
That rationale, short on specifics and painted with broad brush strokes, mirrors the exact stance Edgar recommended.
“I’ve spoken with former Governor Edgar, like I do with many leaders I hope to learn from, and I appreciate his insight and knowledge of the state,” Pritzker told WCIA in an email sent through a spokeswoman.
In that legislative negotiation process, Pritzker, if elected, would likely face criticism from fiscal hawks if he continues to keep his cards close to the vest.
“That’s politics as usual,” state representative Allen Skillicorn (R-East Dundee) replied.
“Do the people want someone who is going to lead on these issues that matter? Or do they want the same political fake promises they get year after year? I would argue that if J.B. Pritzker is a leader, he’ll stake a position and he’ll lead on it.”
In February, the Crain’s Chicago Editorial Board asked Pritzker, a billionaire venture capitalist who inherited his wealth from the Hyatt Hotel fortune, how he would resolve the state’s looming pension crisis.
“There is really only one good way to do it,” Pritzker said at the time, before he explained how he would go about tinkering with the structure of the current “ramp” model, increasing the state’s annual pension payments to flatten out the ramp over time.
Since winning the primary, Pritzker has softened his stance, refusing three times to acknowledge that was ever really his plan.
“There are multiple plans that have been put forward,” Pritzker said.
Considering he previously said “There is really only one good way to do it,” wasn’t that his plan at the time?
“No, that’s a plan that was put forward by an organization. You can look it up,” he said.
The idea originated with the left-leaning Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. The CTBA proposal recommends increasing state pension payments by $2.4 billion in the first year, and promises long-term savings after nearly a decade of increased payments as a result.
“I have talked, for example, about some of the alternative revenue sources we could go to,” Pritzker said. “An example might be — and I favor this — legalizing marijuana. That now by some estimates could be as much as a billion dollars to the state.”
“It’s not going to be easy,” Edgar said. “We’re probably going to have to raise some taxes. Nothing is off the board.”
“Going forward, we’re going to get a billion dollars, I hope as much as a billion dollars by legalizing marijuana,” Pritzker said on Friday. “Another is legalizing sports betting in the state. There has also been a proposal by state Senator Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) to expand gaming in the state. So these are all things that could serve as revenue sources.”
“I think all of those things you’ve got to probably look at. We are still in a crisis.”
Edgar’s decision to publicly criticize the sitting incumbent Republican while advocating for the policies of his opponent has piqued curiosity among Democrats and agitated even the most anti-Rauner Republicans.
“Jim Edgar is responsible for the Edgar Ramp which effectively mortgaged our pensions,” Skillicorn grumbled.
The libertarian minded lawmaker was an enthusiastic supporter of Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton) in her primary challenge against Governor Rauner.
“Jim Edgar is receiving a very sizable pension from three different sources, actually being a triple dipper,” he said.
In fact, state records show Edgar collects more than $275,000 a year in state pension payments.
“It says a lot for his character and our party that we have a former Republican governor effectively endorsing and campaigning for, helping the Democrat J.B. Pritzker who wants to raise taxes,” Skillicorn said.
Pritzker may not have Skillicorn’s vote, but he may not need it either. Republicans are vastly outnumbered in the House and are dwarfed by a super majority of Democrats in the Senate.
Rauner and Pritzker square off Thursday night in their first televised debate on WMAQ-TV in Chicago.