Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivered his second annual State of the State address in Springfield Wednesday, touting the accomplishments of his first year and highlighting some of the most pressing issues currently facing Illinois - taking particular aim at what he called a "scourge" of corruption in the state's politics.
"We have to work together to confront a scourge that has been plaguing our political system for far too long. We must root out the purveyors of greed and corruption — in both parties — whose presence infects the bloodstream of government," Pritzker said, addressing lawmakers from both chambers as a widespread federal probe across Illinois continues to ensnare its politicians.
"It’s no longer enough to sit idle while under-the-table deals, extortion, or bribery persist. Protecting that culture or tolerating it is no longer acceptable," he continued, calling for the General Assembly to pass "real, lasting ethics reform this legislative session."
Pritzker's speech came just one day after former state Sen. Martin Sandoval pleaded guilty to federal bribery and tax charges in exchange for his cooperation in the probe. Prosecutors say he solicited bribes in exchange for his backing of the red-light camera industry in the state.
Sandoval's conviction was the first in a probe that has swept up several other current and former lawmakers.
Then-state Rep. Luis Arroyo was indicted on bribery charges in October, accused of offering an unnamed state senator cash in exchange for his support of sweepstakes legislation. He resigned shortly thereafter and entered a plea of not guilty.
Sen. Tom Cullerton was indicted in August on 40 counts of embezzlement charges alleging he took a salary and benefits from a labor union without doing any work. He has pleaded not guilty.
Chicago Ald. Ed Burke was indicted last May on several counts of bribery and corruption, with prosecutors alleging he used his official position to steer business to his private law firm specializing in property taxes. He has also pleaded not guilty.
Federal agents have raided the offices and homes of others like Chicago Ald. Carrie Austin, former Chicago Ald. Michael Zalewski, the brother of Chicago Ald. Marty Quinn, Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski and powerful Springfield lobbyist Mike McClain in the last year, though none have been charged with any criminal wrongdoing.
"It’s time to end the practice of legislators serving as paid lobbyists," Pritzker said in his speech Wednesday. "In fact, it’s time to end the for-profit influence peddling among all elected officials at every level of government in Illinois."
"Disclosure of conflicts of interest and punishment for breaching them must be included in any ethics package for us to truly clean up government," he continued, calling for a "revolving door provision" and adding, "Elected officials shouldn’t be allowed to retire and immediately start lobbying their former colleagues."
Pritzker said he expects the legislature's bipartisan ethics commission to issue its report in the next eight weeks and that he anticipated addressing "many more ethics reforms" during the legislative session.
But he also noted that he believed much of the change to the culture of Illinois politics would have to happen "outside the scope of legislation."
"It’s about how we, as public officials, conduct ourselves in private that also matters," Pritzker said. "People need to treat disgusting suggestions with disgust. The old patronage system needs to die - finally and completely."
Pritzker also focused his address on some of the victories he won in the most recent legislative session: a $45 billion statewide infrastructure plan, the legalization of recreational marijuana use and a $15 minimum wage, among others.
In his first year, Pritzker was also able to shepherd the passage of a balanced budget - a feat that evaded his predecessor for more than two years during the longest state budget impasse in the nation. He mentioned the budget in his address Wednesday, but noted that work remained in righting Illinois' long-beleaguered finances.
He highlighted a plan lawmakers passed during the fall veto session to consolidate hundreds of downstate and suburban first responder pension systems, but acknowledged that pension problems - and high property taxes - remain problematic for the state.
Pritzker briefly mentioned his campaign promise to shift Illinois from a flat income tax rate to a graduated scale, taxing higher incomes at a higher rate. Lawmakers passed legislation last year to put the change to Illinois' tax structure - now one rate for all, regardless of earnings - on the ballot for a vote in the November election.
After touching on some of these issues Wednesday, Pritzker is expected to delve more specifically into the state's finances in his budget address in three weeks.