The 21st Show

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker on global warming, prisons, the AFSCME contract, pensions, and more

Gov. J.B. Pritzker participates in a debate in this file photo from Oct. 18, 2023.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker participates in a debate in this file photo from Oct. 18, 2023. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker began his second term earlier this year. The Democrat has continued to focus his attention on issues such as abortion, firearms, and trying to make Illinois a hub for electric vehicle manufacturing. But he's also had to respond to problems that have not always been at the top of his public agenda.

Lately that includes troubling conditions in Illinois prisons and at the developmental and mental health centers across the state.

Last Thursday morning (Aug. 10, 2023), Brian Mackey met Pritzker at the Governor's Mansion in downtown Springfield. That this was before the Illinois Supreme Court ruling on assault weapons and before the governor's veto of legislation on nuclear power, so neither of those important topics came up in this interview. But they did talk about global warming, infrastructure, prisons, mental health care, and a range of other issues, including Pritzker's place in national politics.


Gov. J.B. Pritzker
Democrat of Illinois

Interview Transcript

Brian Mackey: I want to begin with global warming. The big federal infrastructure law had lots of money to address this threat. But the Washington Post recently reported that many states, including Illinois, shifted millions in infrastructure money away from global warming and into general purpose highway construction accounts. Illinois is said to have shifted more than $39 million. Why?

Governor J.B. Pritzker: Well, let's back up and recognize that we're putting hundreds of millions of dollars into fighting climate change here in Illinois. So focusing on this one program — where by the way, for many years, states across the country have been allocating — as the federal government allows — from that program to things that states have a higher priority for in that year. Also remember that when you're spending money at the state level, and the federal government hands you money to do the same thing. It also gives you the flexibility to say, okay, if you're already spending the money in a certain way that's helping to fight climate change, you're allowed to spend it another way. So I'm actually pleased with what we're doing. We're one of the most progressive states in terms of fighting climate change, making sure that we're aggressively meeting the goals that we've set for ourselves so that we're fossil fuel free by 2050 in the production of energy,

Brian Mackey: We've talked before, I think it was December, a couple of years ago, about that $217 million to rebuild the I-57/74 interchange in Champaign. Rather than retreading that tire, I want to ask about Interstate 55 and the lane expansion. There's plans here in Springfield. I know there's legislation on your desk — at least last I checked — to do a public-private partnership toll road in Chicagoland. First off, are you going to sign that into law? 

Governor Pritzker: Still looking at it. You know I'm listening to a lot of folks on both sides of that. I'm not opposed to public-private partnerships. But I want to make sure that this meets what I think the goals are for our state, and ask the question: Who should be managing if we did build that road — who should be managing it? Is that the Tollway authority or somebody else? And so those are things that I'm considering at the moment.

Governor Pritzker: But if you're asking me about whether we ought to be expanding our roads: I know that there are people who think that if we don't expand roads that we will keep congestion down or people from getting into their cars. The reality is we need to do both. We need to encourage people not to drive when they can take public transportation. We also need to make it easy for people to drive who must. And as you know, in much of the state, there really isn't a lot of public transportation. And so we need to allow for people who live in rural or in exurban areas to be able to get where they need to go on a road that isn't going to cause them hundreds of dollars of damage to their car every year — and that will be such that traffic won't be impeding them from the productivity that they want to have at their jobs.

Brian Mackey: I'm sure you hear from all sides on this: labor that wants the construction opportunities, the environmentalists who point out things like — the Union of Concerned Scientists found that Black and Latino Illinoisans breathe about 20% more particulate matter from tailpipe emissions than the average Illinoisan. How does [building] more lanes through the west side of Chicago help address that inequality?

Governor Pritzker: Well, I want to make sure everybody knows unfortunately, we're not alone in this fact that you just cited. Across the country I think it's a function of — well it starts with redlining with regard to the building of roads and so on. And we can't unfortunately undo a lot of that. You know, rerouting I-90 or rerouting I-55, would be an endeavor that we do not have the resources to do.

Governor Pritzker: We also want to make sure, though, that we're taking off the road cars that are causing the kind of pollution that you're talking about, and encouraging people to get into cars that aren't going to cause that kind of, that's a better solution in my mind, than trying to, you know, reroute roads or change the way people live in in a massive way — we can't do that quickly. So that's why we're encouraging people to buy electric vehicles, and we're encouraging people to build charging stations across the state of Illinois, so that it's much easier for them. We provide discounts for people who buy EVs and EV prices, thank goodness, are coming down on their own, which makes it a little easier for us to accomplish our goals. So those are all things that I would say we need to take into account.

Governor Pritzker: But environmental justice, I want to be clear, is a very high priority. And you saw that in the building of our Climate and Equitable Jobs Act. The fight that went on was a fight in part about how do we accomplish environmental justice in creating jobs for people that have been left out of the energy industry, out of the automotive industry, right? That could be created in in new industries that are now green, because new jobs are going to be available and trained for. And so we've put a serious amount of resources into making this truly equitable — living up to that word that is part of CEJA.

Brian Mackey: You know, I'm glad you mentioned EVs. Certainly there has been a big increase in adoption. I checked: last summer versus this summer, we're up by 30,000 EVs according to the Secretary of State's office — 76,000 as of middle of July. It's still a small fraction of the overall but one thing I did want to ask about is the industry is trending toward these trucks, right? And I mean, we're all excited that Rivian is made right here in central Illinois. But you look at the Ford F-150 Lightning — these vehicles are bigger, they're more deadly for pedestrians and cyclists and people in smaller cars. I wonder if you're concerned? Or should — maybe the way to say it is, should the state be encouraging manufacturers and consumers to get in vehicles that are less heavy, less giant, less potentially deadly?

Governor Pritzker: That has not been the major consideration here. I understand that a larger truck or car is more dangerous for a pedestrian than a smaller one. But I think that what we're trying to do is let market forces drive the change that we're hoping gets adopted here, and that we're aiming at. And the market forces are if people want to drive a truck, then trying to push them into a car — and some people need to drive a truck, I might add, for their job or because they're regularly hauling a lot of things one way or another, even in their private lives. And so, you know, trying to force people into a smaller car when they're probably not going to —. And I would add one other thing: If you do that, they're likely to go back to buying — at least their next car is going to be another internal combustion engine car. So let's let the market forces and individuals make those decisions. But let's try to put guardrails around what's available to them and and also making sure that we're encouraging, again with some incentives, for people to buy the kinds of vehicles that will be better for our environment going forward.

Brian Mackey: Last thing I want to ask on this topic is: Illinois ranks third and fourth in ethanol and biodiesel fuel production (respectively). As we continue to transition to EVs, is it time for farmers to say farewell to those subsidies?

Governor Pritzker: We need to encourage in every way we can the reduction of fossil fuel emissions. And also we need to look for energy sources wherever we can that fit with those requirements. And so I don't think we're going to talk about that anytime soon. That's something that — I know there are people who focus on that — want to do it right now, that we could be doing maybe 10 or 20 years from now. But the reality is that we're much better off with bio-related fuels, biofuels, than we are with fossil fuels. And so anything that moves us in the right direction, I want to encourage. Again, there are limits to that, obviously, and we can talk about each of the types of fuels but, but in general, again, I want market forces to drive here.

Brian Mackey: I want to turn now to the Illinois prison system. There was a recent report from an outside contractor that found the Department of Corrections had $2.5 billion in deferred maintenance. It says, "At nearly every Correctional Facility, IDOC's operational mission, as well as safety and security, are negatively impacted by its worsening conditions." What is your administration going to do about that?

Governor Pritzker: I want to be clear: We ordered that study. I wanted to make sure that everybody knew how bad our facilities are in Illinois, our prisons. Our DOC is managing through — some of them are 150 years old. And so it's important for the legislature and the people of Illinois to know that. It's not one of those facts that's regularly talked about. And yet with a study like this, here you are asking me and I'm glad of it.

Governor Pritzker: People should pay attention. The legislature should have hearings about this. And we should talk about: Do we need to put more money into the capital needs of those facilities? We have a declining population of prisoners. And we have had that for 20 years, thanks in part to Republicans who adopted that 10, 15, 20 years ago as part of their platform, too. So I think that when you consider the declining population, when you consider the conditions, we have to ask ourselves: What should we do for the next 20 years? And I've tried to run my entire administration with that kind of thought that everything is a decade's long focus. That the investments that we make now in things like quantum are not going to yield enormous returns right away. But five years and 10 years and 20 years down the line, this could be what our economy is based upon, just one example of thinking long term. So thinking long term about investing in infrastructure, should that infrastructure include the infrastructure that our 24/7 incarcerated people, and the people who work in those facilities.

Brian Mackey: Well, what do you think about that? I talk to advocates who say, as you pointed out, the Department of Corrections population peaked at more than 49,000 individuals 10 years ago. Now, it's fewer than 30,000 this spring. It was even lower than that in the pandemic. We could have closed several prisons, many units within prison facilities. As you said, some of which date back to the 1800s. An advocate I was speaking to said, it doesn't seem all that complicated, right? Population's down, staffing is down, $2.5 billion is needed to fix these facilities that are unsafe and inhumane. Why not close them down?

Governor Pritzker: If you assumed that every prisoner was like every other prisoner? Yes, it sounds like a reasonable focus that we would just simply — let's close some and push people into others. And we'll have a perfect system. The reality is that we have a lot of different kinds, we have people who are in maximum security with people who are in minimum security, you know, we have facilities that are made more for older populations, we have women's facilities. It's just not as easy as I think people would like to think that it is, number one. Number two, we have to think a lot about location. Where are these prisons located across our state? Because as we've seen in our healthcare system in, for example, psychiatric hospitals; our need for nurses in developmental disabilities hospitals, and so on. We can't find the kind of workers that we're looking for in some parts of the state. That's not a knock on anything, it's just that when you get more rural, there are fewer people to choose from; there maybe are fewer people that got the kind of specific training that you need there. And it's true in in our corrections facilities, too. So I think this has all got to be a public conversation. And it's one that I think is accelerated by the study that we commissioned, and it's now been delivered that everybody can read.

Brian Mackey: Is employment — these prisons are big job anchors in their communities. And that was part of the idea. Is that a valid reason for continuing to have a facility in a rural, depopulated part of the state when most people who are incarcerated come from mostly in Cook County, frankly.

Governor Pritzker: Not by itself, it's not not a valid concern, just to simply say, Well, gee, we need jobs in this county over here, so let's have the prison be there. I know that in the past that has been a consideration. I don't think by itself, but I do think that you know, there are questions about should for example, these facilities these these prisons be located in the most highly populated areas. Is that a You know, can we keep them secure? In a highly populated area? Is it easier in some ways to put them in one community versus another, to manage them? Again, you've got to consider can you actually get the trained workers that you need? The corrections officers are trained, well trained, and need to be. And we want to make sure we're attracting them. But they're not going to drive 120 miles to get to a job, and so some of the facilities have to be rethought. Or we have to consider training people somewhere nearby and bringing people there. But I think it's it's hard to change, you know? Are people really going to move to go to a training facility in order to get a specific job? Or are we more likely to be successful if the prisons are located in places where it's easier to hire? Again, I don't want to answer those questions because I think there are better experts than I to help illuminate what it is that we ought to do. But I do think that if you don't have a study about it; if you don't have anybody focused on it; if we just let it sit in the dark and not pay attention to it, things are going to get worse.

Brian Mackey: How do we get from here to there? How do we get to you're making a future budget proposal that says we should have X fewer facilies? We've had the public conversation, how do we get from this study to there?

Governor Pritzker: Well, again, you're assuming fewer facilities — I don't know if that's the right answer. I think there's an argument to be made that having facilities that are less populated within a facility is one of the answers. Maybe we have facilities — the same number of facilities and fewer prisoners. In each one, again, we can talk about the the financial implications for the state of all of that, and we can talk about the implications for the human rights of the people who are incarcerated, not to mention the safety of the workers at a facility. I want the legislature to hold hearings about it, I think they should. And I want advocates on both sides to speak up — including, for example, corrections officers, who know their facilities well and know what works well. I think everybody should be heard here.

Brian Mackey: We were talking about state prisons. I also want to ask you about another type of state institution that's been in the news lately, and those are developmental and mental health centers. We've talked on our show with reporters from Capitol News Illinois, who have shone a light on years of abuse and neglect and cover up at places like Choate in Southern Illinois and other facilities I acknowledged being responsible for helping care for people with severe mental health problems and developmental disabilities — it is one of the hardest jobs in the state, certainly. But why has this abuse been perpetuated? Why have some of the people who are responsible for it — why is it so hard to hold them to account?

Governor Pritzker: Well, again, shining a light on it and making sure that we're addressing the problem is an enormously important thing. I think that the initial reports that came out of Capitol News Illinois — or at least the reporters that were involved in the joint effort, I think ProPublica was part of it at the time, is it was a very important thing. Remember, this dates back many years, and the people being held accountable are people — there were people being held accountable a few years earlier, too. And uncovering the evidence, indicting people, convicting people — that just takes time. And so you hear more and more about it. And of course, my goodness, every time we hear a story about an abuse that took place, I think you can't help but wonder, first of all, how did these people ever get hired? They've been in these facilities, many of them for 10, 15, 20 years. How did they ever get hired in the first place? How come nobody knew, for years, that they had this willingness to abuse people.

Governor Pritzker: And I don't know whether there were things that have not been uncovered. But I know that at least what's been uncovered is horrific. So holding them to account is enormously important. It is hard to hire to replace those people. That doesn't mean you keep them in place, it means you get rid of them, and then you deal with the problem that comes as a result. I think we also have to wonder about what's the culture that they created for themselves in these facilities? And then how do we change all of that?

Governor Pritzker: So we've been dealing with that ever since the revelation of it. And some of it has required changing management, which we have done. Some of it has required more training, which we have done. And I think you have to go at this from four or five different angles. But we can't allow it to persist. I do think — I know there was a secondary report that came out that said, oh, there have been a lot of complaints that have been filed that allege abuse. You know, you have to remember that, like in many other areas, complaints get filed that are accurate and that are true, and some complaints get filed that are not. And we have to take all of them seriously and investigate every single one of them. But we have to recognize that until something is — there's a finding that there was abuse or misconduct — that you can't hold people accountable and fire them if if what turns out is it's a false report or the report was exaggerated in some way and inappropriate, or if the punishment shouldn't be firing for something that they did.

Governor Pritzker: Again, abuse is unacceptable. People should be fired for abuse. But I think that there are circumstances ,occasionally, where neglect, for example, is something that may have been a result of: there were two people that stayed home that day, who are supposed to be helping in a unit, and there isn't enough staff. And somebody is trying hard to do the job that three people would do, but there's only one of them to do it. And again I'm not thinking of anything specific here, I just want to recognize that we're holding people accountable who deserve to be fired, and for goodness' sakes people who've committed crimes. But we also want to at least start with the idea that people are innocent until there's some proof that they've done something. And so we're we're moving forward (with) the idea that we're going to be extra careful — indeed take every allegation seriously and hold people accountable.

Brian Mackey: Your administration recently came to an agreement with the AFSCME labor union. The union called it "robust" — there's a $1,200 payout, raises of nearly 18% over four years. Let's say you're in an elevator with Joey Bagadonuts from South Chicago Heights; he's not a state worker, he wants to know — make the case to him, you have 30 seconds to make the case why this is a good deal for taxpayers,

Governor Pritzker: We got a better deal than most other states have gotten in their state contracts with their workers. Number one, it was a hard fought negotiation. We live in a world where there's been a lot of inflation and inflation persists, even today. And so it's not a problem that, that workers are asking for more. They understand that they're not able to buy milk and eggs and cheese like they were before for their families. And so they'd like a raise.

Governor Pritzker: So we tried to measure our response to their demands, and make sure that we got a good deal for the taxpayers. And we did that. We got a better deal than Cook County did with its workers, than the city of Chicago did with its workers, Pennsylvania, Oregon, the list goes on. And I want to make sure that people understand that I have been a watchdog for the people of Illinois to make sure that we are not overspending and that we are managing our resources properly. And that's why we've been able to balance the budget for five times in a row now for my five budgets, and have gotten eight credit upgrades. And I'll continue to make sure the taxpayers are represented at the table every time.

Brian Mackey: You know, going back to the what we were just talking about — about developmental centers and prisons — do you see AFSCME as a partner in making necessary changes or an obstacle in those types of facilities?

Governor Pritzker: I don't think they intend to be an obstacle. And they do want to be a partner to make sure that we're doing the right things in those facilities. But they also know they have to zealously represent their members. If a member says I'm innocent and didn't do this, you know, it's the union's obligation to try to ferret out the facts and fight for their member. Having said that, there are lots of things where — as it happens all the time, where management and labor, whether you're talking about in a private business, or in the state — are at odds over something where both sides are a little bit right. And maybe one is more right than another, but you've got to work it out, negotiate it. 

Governor Pritzker: From my perspective, an example of this is that we wanted to make sure — we've had hard time hiring in state government because of many of the rules that are in place. Some of those rules are a result of negotiations in the past that the labor unions have won. And so it's harder and harder to hire people from outside the system, you have to hire somebody who's who's looking to transfer from one department to another before you hire somebody from outside. Well, guess what? We're in a world right now where we need to hire anybody and everybody that's qualified for a job. If they show up, let's hire them. And it's very hard — some of the rules. So that's why we negotiated some of that in this contract, that we recently agreed to, to get rid of a few of those obstacles that they put in previous contracts, and they agreed to them.

Brian Mackey: I'm not going to ask you about the Wall Street Journal editorial that called you a "public union boss," I'm sure you saw that after this contract came out —

Governor Pritzker: Why not? Why wouldn't you ask me that?

Brian Mackey: — well because they seem to misunderstand that you get campaign contributions from unions when you're entirely self funded. But I do want to ask about one little thing that came in there — you can respond to that if you want, although our time is short. Once again, they say Democrats will demand a federal taxpayer bailout when Illinois pensions become unaffordable. I've been hearing a version of this for more than a decade. But let's do it again: Would you ever demand or accept federal funding toward Illinois pension liabilities?

Governor Pritzker: Have I ever done that? It's four and a half years now that I've been in office: I've haven't campaigned on anything like that. I've never said anything like that. No. I think that what I would say is, we're going to get our fair share of whatever the federal government is offering to states, I'm going to go fight for that, I have fought for that, and we've gotten it. But nobody's looking for a bailout here.

Governor Pritzker: Indeed, here's what I've been doing: I've been making sure that Illinois is bailing itself out over the last four and a half years, we're putting more money into our pension systems than is required by law. Nobody's ever done what I've done in that regard. We've brought down our pension liability, brought up our percent funded of our pension system since I took office, and I'm continuing to focus on that. And as you've seen, we now now have no long no longer have any short term debt, we have long term debt, but I've paid off all of our short term debts in the state. It's almost frustrating now, because the only place that we should and can put money is to pay our long term debt, which is mostly pensions. Happy to do that. I think that's the right thing to do.

Governor Pritzker: I say it's frustrating, because sometimes you think: okay, you know, we've been scrambling for so many years in this state to put ourselves on the right financial — we finally are on the right track, and I am frustrated people don't recognize that enough. I want to help manage our pension system properly.

Governor Pritzker: But the Wall Street Journal, unfortunately they listen to the carnival barkers that are here in Illinois, the spelunkers for misery in Illinois, and they cite them in their editorials. They make no bones about the fact that they'll just take the made up stuff, the Facebook fakery, from those organizations in Illinois and publish them on the editorial pages of one of the great newspapers in the country, certainly one of the most successful ones. It's frustrating that they do that they don't seem to know much about Illinois.

Brian Mackey: "Spelunkers for misery." That's going to go down with "nattering nabobs of negativism."

Brian Mackey: The U.S. Supreme Court recently barred affirmative action in higher education, as you know. From our reporting, that's more of a factor at elite universities — we've heard it's not going to affect too many universities here in Illinois. But there's this growing culture of legal challenges to corporate diversity programs, and to the very idea that there's a benefit to diversity justifying preferences in hiring. How is the Illinois preparing to defend affirmative action in state government in hiring and procurement? And, even though it's been slow to get going, things like social equity licenses for cannabis dispensaries?

Governor Pritzker: Well, you had a lot in that one question. Let me start with your comments about the situation in corporations. I love how the Republicans who say they want freedom over and over again, they tout they believe that they are for freedom. And yet, they're perfectly happy to go tell a corporation: No, you can't have diversity, you can't have any goals for diversification of your management, for example. That's ridiculous. Companies should be able to do — if they think that's the best thing for their company, having people of diverse backgrounds helping to make decisions and work at their corporation — they should be free to do that. And they are choosing to do that; no one's forcing them to do that.

Governor Pritzker: And Wall Street is rewarding companies, in fact, for making those decisions, and they're rewarding them because it's good for the bottom line. Wall Street, you think it operates on any system other than focused on the bottom line? No. So they're rewarding companies that are making good decisions and diversifying is a good decision.

Governor Pritzker: The state is in the business of doing what's right for the people of Illinois. And I think what's right for the people of Illinois is recognizing that we have a diverse population. In Illinois, we have in fact, the population that is most reflective of the entire population of the United States. That's how diverse we are in Illinois. And so we should have state government that reflects that. We should have — I think we should have universities that reflect that. We don't control the state universities; state universities are doing what's in their best best interests. And they are looking for diverse populations of students and faculty, and attracting them from out of state or from the state of Illinois. And I encourage that; I think that's the right thing to do.

Brian Mackey: Your press secretary has given me the signal that we are almost out of time. I do want to ask you about a New York magazine piece — I don't know if you saw this recently — that asserted that "the most wired-in Democrats from Washington, D.C. to Chicago to Los Angeles expect Pritzker to be a paramount figure in the 2024 election." And that same piece said President Biden at a Chicago fundraiser in June told the crowd that you "did more in 2020 to help me get elected president of the United States than just about anybody in the country, and that's a fact." Do you think that's true?

Governor Pritzker: Well I'm flattered, of course, that the president said that. I can't say that. I here's what I know: I worked very hard to help elect Joe Biden; I worked very hard to defeat Donald Trump, I think he's the worst thing that's happened to our country in my lifetime, if not in a century or the entire history of our country. And so I'm going to work hard, once again, to make sure that Donald Trump doesn't become president and that Joe Biden does get reelected.

Governor Pritzker: Back in 2020, I thought what was very important was helping in a swing state, getting involved in swing states to support our presidential nominee, Joe Biden. And so I did do that. I think I was one of the larger contributors, for example, to the Wisconsin Democratic Party. And as you know, we won Wisconsin by a very, very small margin — Joe Biden did, that is. And so I think he's probably acknowledging that.

Governor Pritzker: Last thing I'll say is: that article, I think, is maybe reflective of my own hope that I can have an influence on the outcomes in 2024. Not just at the presidential level, but as you know, I've supported people running for governor across the country, people —

Brian Mackey: Financially. That's what that means, right? Financially.

Governor Pritzker: Yes, and I've also traveled to states to support candidates specifically in those states where I think I can make an influence. Also, I've been very involved in promoting a woman's right to choose and standing up for reproductive rights. I think that issue is going to be determinative, once again, in the 2024 elections, as it was in 2022 following the Dobbs decision. We need to solidify that right for women and we need to elect people to public office who reflect the fight for women's freedom, for women's rights. And this is one of those fundamental rights that the Republicans are trying to take away.

Brian Mackey: Governor Pritzker, thank you for being with us on The 21st Show.

Governor Pritzker: Thank you. Great to see you again, Brian.

This interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.