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Minimum wage hike top priority for Illinois Democrats

By Greg Bishop
Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Legislature starts in earnest Tuesday and with Democratic supermajorities in both chambers and a Democrat in the executive office, they’ll have to shore up a budget while moving forward with progressive agenda including raising the state’s minimum wage.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Monday that he will be looking for new revenue streams to help “dig out” of the state’s financial mess, but two income sources he’s looking at may not materialize by budget time.

The task is to balance an already unbalanced budget with big asks from higher education and K-12 schools plus the raises Pritzker promised to thousands of state employees. The raises could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The governor’s office hasn’t released a price tag for the total cost and was still in the process of calculating the cost when Pritzker announced the pay bumps. Illinois’ public colleges and universities want about $300 million more than last year and K-12 schools have asked for billions more.

The state’s most recent budget was more than $1 billion out of balance, and that didn’t include estimated one-time savings from the sale of the Thompson Center in Chicago or savings from a pension buyout plan that has yet to been funded through bond sales. The Thompson Center hasn’t been sold despite the potential sale having been counted as revenue in several recent state budgets.

Pritzker said it will be difficult to balance the budget without revenue from recreational marijuana or expanded gambling options.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time to work our way out of this enormous mess,” Pritzker said. “And of course we’ve got to find revenue for the state and I’ve talked over time about what those options are.”

Pritzker has talked about marijuana and gambling as revenue sources, but they’re not expected to be fully implemented until after the budget year begins this summer.

Another potential revenue stream is a tax on services, but state Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, said he’s not sure if that will come up again.

“We’re in the season of ‘introduce a bill’ ” Demmer said. “Let’s see what the language is on it. Let’s see what does it do, does it treat taxpayers fairly, where does the money go from it?”

Pritzker is set to deliver a budget address Feb. 20 in front of a joint session of the House and Senate. He’s promised a balanced budget.

Pritzker and other lawmakers have said increasing the state’s minimum wage will be a priority. There’s no election this year. That means votes taken this year could be a distant memory when members of the House are up for election in 2020. Pritzker will have more leeway to get some of his progressive agenda through.

“As you know, I’m very much in favor of lifting up working families by raising the minimum wage,” Pritzker said. “We’re going to work on that.”

Pritzker has said there may need to be a gradual increase, but the goal is $15 an hour.

With Republicans in the minority, House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, said they will still have a seat at the table, along with employers and workers’ groups.

“Within industry and labor there are different points of view with details of implementation and we’ll work through those,” Harris said.

A Senate committee is set to debate a minimum wage during a subject matter hearing Wednesday.

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