Gov. J.B. Pritzker on COVID, crime, climate and more
Brian Mackey talks with incumbent Gov. J.B. Pritzker about crime, corruption, COVID, and more in an interview taped September 29, 2022 in Bloomington, Illinois.
He faces Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey, a farmer from southern Illinois. The 21st Show has made multiple requests to speak with Bailey ahead of the election; the campaign has acknowledged receiving the requests but as of Oct. 3, 2022, has yet to agree to an interview.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker
Democrat, Governor of Illinois (2019-present)
Brian Mackey: Governor J.B. Pritzker, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
Governor J.B. Pritzker: Glad to be here with you.
In mid-September, President Biden said, “The pandemic is over.” Do you agree?
Well we're getting there, there's no doubt about it. Things are much, much better in the state of Illinois. As you know, we had a couple of very, very difficult years where we saw ebbs and flows, and sometimes some real deadly peaks of the pandemic. But we've seen over the last six months, particularly as Omicron fell after the winter, that we've had much lower case counts, many fewer people going into the hospital — going into the ICUs — and fewer people passing away.
I'm still deeply concerned to make sure that as many people as possible get vaccinated. It's what keeps people healthy, getting vaccinated, and we have this new by bivalent booster that is going to keep people safe. So meanwhile, as you know, the entire economy and everything is opened up, and so things are much, much better. But we still have challenges. We have more than 1000 people in the hospital right now with COVID-19. And we want to make sure that we're keeping that number moving in the right direction. And so I'm looking forward for to being able to lift the disaster declaration in the state. And again, following the the lead of the federal government, which still has an emergency declaration.
As we're talking in late September, 62 people died last week in Illinois. There was a report just this morning, as we're talking, in Science Magazine: “several new and highly immune evasive strains of the virus have caught scientists attention. In recent weeks, one or more may well cause big new COVID-19 waves this fall in winter.” Is there any chance that we would return to the sort of mitigations (and) restrictions that Illinois had in the past: masking, closures of schools, that sort of thing?
Look, I don't anticipate that. But as you know, if we start to see massive numbers of hospitalizations — at our peak, we were at about 7,400 people in the hospital — and when you're taking up all those hospital beds with COVID patients, you're also keeping people who have heart attacks or are in car accidents from getting care that they need. So if we start to move in a terrible direction, then we're going to obviously look at other mitigations.
But people know what the mitigations are that they can do for themselves. As things get worse, if they do, people know that masks work, at least most people follow that and understand that. And so I would certainly advise people to do that. But I have no plans and wouldn't anticipate that we would need to impose mitigations
You and other blue state governors took a lot of heat for those mitigations. Even as red states were not doing that. It's what propelled your opponent's popularity in some regards, or his profile. What did Illinois gain by having those mitigations longer than other states did?
Tens of thousands of people didn't die. That's what we gained. I think that's pretty important. And you know, as governor, it's my job to protect people, whether it's from a flood or COVID-19. We've got to save lives and livelihoods. That's my job. And we did that. But you know, you can't have your livelihood if you don't have your life. And so that's what we accomplished.
And let me be clear: We succeeded. We have one of the highest vaccination rates in the Midwest, we have one of the lowest mortality rates in the Midwest. People are alive today because of the work that we did. And if we had listened to my opponent, tends of thousands more people would have died. He not only opposed any mitigations and masks and vaccinations, but he himself is not vaccinated.
I want to move now to another aspect of healthcare, which is Medicaid — the state's program for the poor, elderly and disabled. Over the last decade or so, Illinois and other states have privatized the running of their Medicaid systems. These are for-profit companies. As a businessman I know you understand that a way to make money is to reduce costs, keep costs down. How do you reconcile a focus on profits with a state's promise to provide high quality health care to its most vulnerable citizens?
Yeah, this is something that we monitor every day as the state of Illinois — that is, to make sure that people are getting the care that they need, and that they deserve, and that we're managing that care appropriately and spending appropriately on it. This is one of the largest expenditures in state government — providing care for people across the state who can't afford it. I think it's very important that people get the health care that they need. I've always said that health care is a right not a privilege. And to me that means that if you can't afford it, we need to provide it for you. Whatever you can afford, I think you should contribute to. But I think the state should step in. I believe in universal health care. I don't think that means the government has to run health care. But I think that we need universal health care. It should not be that someone goes without getting a doctor when they need one.
But with regard to the privatization, the Better Government Association, as you may know, investigated this and found that hundreds of millions of dollars were being shifted to insurance companies away from the hospitals and doctors and other medical providers who provide this care. Is that right? You know, is privatization the way to go when looking to provide this high quality health care?
Well those are two different questions. The the idea that there can be MCOs — managed care organizations — that help us manage Medicaid in the state, and the idea that doctors and care providers are getting paid properly. We can have those things exist at the same time, indeed that's why you have regulation and why you have a Health Care and Family Services Department. And so constantly staying on top of that, making sure that they're not profiteering on the insurance side, and making sure that doctors and care providers are getting the payments that they deserve in a timely fashion.
On the subject of health care, the state Department of Corrections, was recently held in contempt by a federal judge for failing to submit a plan to improve health care for people incarcerated in Illinois prisons, as the state agreed to do to settle a lawsuit. What's taking so long?
The state did in fact submit a plan. It's just that the other side — remember, there are two sides in the litigation, there's a judge, but there are two sides in the litigation — the other side didn't agree to the plan that was put forward. There was a lot of back and forth, and the fact that they didn't agree to it is why there was no plan that was something that the judge approved. And so the judge decided in order to speed it up that he would hold people in contempt. I understand why the judge is anxious; I am, too. I want to make sure that people get the health care that they deserve. And by the way, these are under consent decrees that have existed for many, many years long before I became governor. We're trying to live up to those consent decrees. Unlike my predecessor and people before him, who didn't live up to them and who weren't trying to either, and just ignored the court. We want to make sure that we're doing as is required caring for the people that are in our custody.
I definitely acknowledge that those these problems in the Department of Corrections long predate your administration. I think the Rauner administration would push back a little on the mental health issue in particular, but there have been these reports in the past three and a half years of a mentally ill inmate locked — and these are some tough things to hear — but a mentally ill inmate locked in a cell with feces as punishment. Other inmates with missing teeth and facial trauma, which suggests maybe they were beaten. And there's a man named Larry Earvin, who was so badly beaten that he succumbed to his injuries later; three guards have either pleaded guilty or been convicted related to that death.
And attorney Harold Hirshman on the other side of this health care case, and the mental health case, says: “Pritzker has been a leader in many areas, but not on prison medical and mental health care. Nothing has changed in Illinois prisons in the last three and a half years. If anything, things have gotten worse.” These people are in state custody, you're the governor, why haven't you done more?
To be clear, that's coming from an attorney who's on the other side of the case. It's their job to advocate for their side. So I understand why that kind of language is coming out of that side. The truth is that we're working very hard on two things that you're talking aboutL: One of them is to make sure that we're holding people accountable — the people who work in prisons — for doing the right thing in their jobs. And when they don't do the right thing, we're holding them accountable, making sure that they're you know that they're fired and they lose their jobs, or that they're subject to even criminal prosecution.
But the other thing that we're working very hard on is to make sure to upgrade the mental health and overall physical health, that we're providing — health care that we're providing for inmates. They deserve that. That's the obligation of the state. And again, for many years before I became governor, this has been a challenge. That means working with the provider in the prisons to make sure they're doing the right thing. This is a little bit like the challenge that we have, as you were describing earlier, with whenever you have an outside provider that's giving the care, you've got to hold them accountable and make sure they're doing the job that you've paid them to do.
How often if you He visited Illinois prisons as governor?
I probably — four or five times, I have to say my wife does quite a lot of work with women in prison, and so —
— Yes, and a couple of the times it's been with her. But this has been — it's an extraordinarily important issue to her, to me, to make sure that people that are in the custody of the state and the work that's being done by the state is proper.
And it's about our public safety though, over the long term, right? Because a lot of the people in there, even for the most heinous crimes, they're going to get out someday. They're going to be back with us. Now is the time to do the work on mental health. Why is it so hard to meet the court's requirements to get the staffing?
Well, there are two challenges, I think that we all can understand. One is making sure you have the funding that's necessary to provide the care that's required. And two, it's holding accountable the people who are actually providing the care to do the level of care that they should. These are challenges — again, they preexisted my governorship — but certainly I take responsibility and I want to make sure that we're continuing to move in the right direction.
But it is hard. You want to change culture and you want to make sure you're making the investments that are necessary. For example, we have prison facilities that are (a) century old, some of them —
Yes. And so those facilities sometimes make it hard for us to provide that health care. And then again, outside providers — making sure that they're living up to their obligations.
Crime and Cash Bail
On the subject of public safety: Illinois, as you know, is eliminating cash bail as of January. This is a progressive idea that people who are charged with crimes but still legally innocent until proven guilty should not be languishing in jail for want of a few hundred dollars. You know all this, but there are a lot of people out there, including some Democratic prosecutors — Democratic states attorneys — who say the courts are going to be forced to release sometimes dangerous people. How can you reassure voters that there's not going to be a major crime wave related to this next year?
Well that's just false. What you've just said that prosecutors may have said, There's no requirement that people are going to be let out as a result of this. Not at all. In fact, the goal is to keep the murderers, the rapists, the domestic abusers in jail; giving the judge the ability to keep them in jail and not give them bail. Today, without the Pretrial Fairness Act — under the current law, before that goes into effect — they can buy their way out. Murderers can buy their way out. But a young mother who can't afford diapers and formula, and shoplifts those, goes into jail and can't afford a couple of hundred dolalrs in bail. She sits and languishes in jail while a murderer can buy their way out. That's not fair. And I think everybody understands that's not fair. You called it a progressive (idea) — it's not a progressive — it's just about fairness. It's doing the right thing for people who are held by the state.
What about this critique that some are saying that judges could abuse their discretion the other way and keep people in. Now they have this freedom — they might keep people in just because they don't like the cut of their jib or something like that.
There are bad judges; you ought to vote them out of office. I mean, judges should not be, you know, improperly holding or letting people go. And no one is getting out of jail. There's this idea that January 1, somehow the jail doors are going to fling open — that's ridiculous. That's nothing that's in the law. That's nothing that should happen. If prosecutors do that, that's on them. They don't have the — I don't believe they have a desire to do that. And so that's just not going to happen.
And yet even your Democratic colleagues, like Attorney General Kwame Raoul, acknowledge ambiguities in the law and said that some provisions relating to bail are “worthy of discussion.” Will there be changes before January 1st, possibly in a veto session this fall?
Well as you know the action gets taken by the General Assembly and there'll be a veto session that's coming up just after the election. Look, every law needs tweaks. I like to point to — the Republicans who say, “Oh, see, amendments are needed, so it must be a terrible law.” You know what? Republicans vote for thousands of amendments over the years that they serve in office to change laws that are on the books to make them better. This is an example of something where after something gets passed, you realize maybe something should be made more clear. To the extent that people don't understand it and are abusing that misunderstanding for political purposes, makes sense to clarify it.
Have you been persuaded that there are changes that need to be made?
I think there are tweaks that I've seen that need to be — again, for clarification. I also think that, look Senator Scott Bennett introduced a bill just the other day. There are aspects of that I think that are reasonable. He's a former prosecutor. I'm somebody who cares deeply about maintaining the act, but making sure that it gets applied appropriately. And so there are things about what he's proposed that I think are worthy of consideration. And I'm always open to that idea.
Climate Change and Transportaion
Another key issue for our long term future, collectively, is climate change. And we've talked in the past about transportation and how that's a bigger driver of emissions now than the energy sector is, right? More tailpipes contributing carbon into the atmosphere than actual power plants. I've spoken with an advocate who tells me that Illinois’ transportation mindset is still very road focused — three-lane highways to the middle of nowhere. What is it going to take to break that cycle? To break that mental culture?
Well we're making greater investments now in transit than we've ever made before. The Rebuild Illinois plan puts billions of dollars into transit. And so I think that transition is taking place. You've seen that where we've built new bridges, for example, we're actually making lanes on the sides of the bridges for people who are on bikes are walking across bridges. That was impossible before; they were only made for cars, at least many of them. And so now we're putting in bike lanes, we're making sure that we're keeping in mind what pedestrians are looking for. But let's also be clear that when you're talking about some areas of the state, highways are necessary. And we do have a great deal of transportation that takes place across Illinois. And because we have businesses in Illinois that are focused on transportation, distribution and logistics. It's a big industry in Illinois. So we're going to do both. We don't need to say we're only doing one. And that's what I've done.
In fact, I have to say we've put a lot of effort into providing dollars in central and southern Illinois. It's important to me that we're making the investments in transportation — also in transit, in places like East St. Louis, in places like Belleville and across Metro East, (and) here in Bloomington-Normal. And so, again, I'm I'm listening to the advocates — the transportation advocates — who want us to focus on other modes of transportation than just trucks and cars.
Higher Education and Student Debt
And interstate interchanges in rural Illinois. All right, higher education is another topic that's been a lot discussed around the country this year. Do you support President Biden's plan to wipe away $10,000 to $20,000 in student debt?
Look, I think if we could provide PPP loans to people and then have those forgiven — and those are for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of dollars — that providing $10,000 or $20,000 of debt relief to former students that are carrying around student debt for decades, is reasonable. But remember we're doing a lot here in Illinois to make it less costly for kids to go to college for young people and older adults to go to community college so they don't get strapped with debt for the rest of their lives, I increased MAP grants in the state by a significant amount — more than $200 million. And that's about 50 percent more than ever before.
Every person that's applying and eligible for a map grant now gets one; that never happened before. So think about how that reduces your need to go out and take on student debt. That plus what they're doing in Washington, D.C., I think is an enormous benefit — in addition to the millions of dollars that we're putting in directly into the schools themselves, so they can provide financial aid.
Well that actually dovetails exactly with where I was going to go, because yes, the president's plan is for people who have already been through school.
You and I had the privilege of going to college, I think, in the ’80s and ’90s, when it was a lot more affordable for people. And since 2000, at least as of a few years ago, the amount of real dollars that Illinois gave to higher education — public institutions — actually decreased. And that wasn't true of almost any other area of government. We got a question from a listener, Mike Phillips, who wanted to know about you and your opponent's positions on higher education and wants to know: Is it desirable and possible to return to the scale of funding support the state provided in the ’90s?
What I can tell you is that I have worked hard to make sure that we're providing more and more dollars for our universities, for our community colleges and for our students, so that it is more affordable. You know, you can't just talk about tuition without talking about the aid that gets provided. And I'm not necessarily talking about loans, I'm talking about the grants that we're giving to people because you have to look at that kind of net cost that a student is taking on in order to go to college.
I think that everybody at or below median income level in the state should be able to go to college for free. That is a goal of mine and I orking toward —
How do you get there?
Well you get there by continuing to increase our MAP grants, making sure that you're looking at every piece of what students are actually having to pay for. Remember, it's not just about tuition, right? There's room and board and transportation and everything that goes in around it. And we've been doing that slowly but surely across the state for community colleges, and working into our universities to make sure people have the supports that they need in order to stay in college. Those are all costs to students; you can't just look at tuition. And so the more we're doing that, the more we're competitive with other states. And indeed, the more we're keeping people in our states — probably our best assets for the future of Illinois. Our smartest young people, our smartest adults who are going to college — whether it's a community college or four year university, to get better educated — we want them to stay here, not to go to the University of Alabama or the University of Iowa. And so that's been my goal from day one, and we're accomplishing it.
Is there — and I guess I should disclose my home public media stations are part of the University of Illinois, so I'm talking about some of my boss's boss's boss's here — but is there bloat in university administrations that needs to be addressed?
You know, I think it's funny we've been sitting together now for maybe 20 minutes, and you haven't once mentioned that we balanced our budget in the state of Illinois. You don't talk about the state's finances because it's not controversial, so much. We — actually not only balancing the budgets, but we have surpluses in the state. And that's helped us now — now that we're actually acting in a fiscally responsible fashion — we paid off all our state's overdue bills, we got six credit upgrades. That's helping us to get to a point where we're providing the funding that's necessary.
Now, is there bloat? There's always bloat somewhere. You're saying bloat like it's like everybody is doing it wrong. I am certain that there are things that you would say, or I would say, a university could be doing less of. But the fact of the matter is that we have to put our money and our support into students who are going to school and making sure that our schools are well-enough supplied with the resources that they need to give students a high quality education. Our universities are raising up in the rankings, in part because we are providing that funding and universities are using it well, to provide the kind of academic experience that young people need. So I'm really excited about where university education is going in the state. And again, could we go through a budget, each of us, and find something you disagree with that they're doing or I — yes, but I just want to be clear: We have got to continue to fund those students so they can go to these great universities.
Certainly the budgets are balanced. The pension liability still remains large and looming. Do you see any long-term changes that need to be made or or possible to make in that regard — beyond what's already been done?
To be clear you can't take care of your pension problem until you balance your budget, and we've been doing that. We've got to continue to balance our budget. This is not just a one time thing. Every year, we've got to make sure we're actually paying the bills and balancing the budget. Then, in the wake of that, you can ask yourself: What should we do if we have surpluses? Should we put more money into our pension systems? Are there changes that we can make in the pension systems? I believe that if you paid into the pension system, and you were promised a pension, you should get that pension. The question is: How's the state going to live up to that? And we've been slowly but surely increasing the percentage of funding of our pension system since I came into office. It's been a goal of mine.
We increased a program that Mark Batinick, a Republican state representative, introduced before I came into office — that was a pilot program; I increased it to make sure that it's open to everybody — and that's to have your pension bought out by the state. You can get your money up front, and it's less costly to the state. That's just one of the things that we're doing.
Getting better returns on our investments, making sure we're consolidating as I did with police and fire pensions across the state. Seventy-five years people have tried to do that; I did it when I came into office, and it's saving property taxpayers across the country across the state — and will save them — billions of dollars. So a lot of work that continues to be done on our pensions, both state and local, and we need to continue. But balancing the budget is the very first and most important thing you need to do.
I want to turn now to public corruption. It's been in the news again lately. As you know there are federal bribery charges against state Sen. Emil Jones III; he's pleaded not guilty, though there are some indications that may change at some point. Prosecutors say he agreed to hold up a piece of legislation in exchange for five grand and a job for an associate. I'm still amazed this kind of thing is happening, even though this allegedly happened a few years ago. I'm sure you are as well. But I'm only bringing this up to ask you: You've been governor for almost four years now — I wonder if you've ever been in a position where someone has asked you to do something that made you feel like: Are they asking me to do something unethical or illegal? And what did you do about that?
I've not had anybody approach me about something that was illegal. I think there are moments when I think, you know, I'm not sure this is something that should be discussed in this context. Maybe it's something political that someone brings up in a in a governmental setting. And so that's when I'm quick to say: We should not be talking about that here. You can talk about it in a campaign office, but not in the Capitol, for example, something like that. But nothing that I think anybody intended to be unethical that they've approached me about. I think sometimes it's by accident, you're in a conversation, you're talking about something that's state oriented, and you just sort of transition into something political. And so that's something I'm very careful about, and I think everybody should be.
But look, we have to address corruption in the state head on. And I've said this from the beginning: It's a scourge that has been plaguing the state of Illinois for far too long. That's why virtually every year that I've been in office — I've been in office for four years — three times I've proposed and got past ethics reforms. Do we need to do this every year? Yes, we do. We need to review the laws every year and see what it is that we can be shaping and doing better. But most of all we need to hold our public officials to a high standard. People ought to stand up for integrity and honesty in public service. It amazes me, like it does you, that someone doesn't get it. You can't stop people from all of a sudden doing something corrupt that you didn't expect them to do. But you can have laws on the books that hold them accountable. And in the case, as you've seen, of a recent indictment, there is a law on the books that says no, you can't accept a bribe. But it does amaze me when someone is convicted of it that they actually thought they could get away with it or that that was somehow appropriate.
We're coming to the end of our time together and I want to ask: You've made trips to talk with Democrats in New Hampshire and Florida. This is amazing — there was recently — you were identified as the top donor to Democrats in the state of Minnesota. It's a fascinating fact, I thought.The people of Illinois have an interest in knowing whether they'll have the full attention of their governor for the next few years. When do you plan to state definitively whether you will or will not be running for president in 2024?
Let me correct just a factual error: That report about Minnesota? Not true. I was curious myself when I heard about that — like, no, that's not something I did, what is that? But it is not a contribution that I made in Minnesota.
Look, let me be clear: I'm running for reelection as governor of the state of Illinois. I love this state and I intend to serve four years as governor — the next four years. Joe Biden's running for reelection, he's said that. I'm supporting him in that. I'm hoping that we'll be nominating him in Chicago at a Democratic National Convention when we win it later this year. And I have gone to other states to help Democrats across the country. Obviously I'm running for reelection myself, but so are Democrats who are governors or people challenging governors. And in those two cases that you mentioned, those were candidates running against incumbent Republicans and I would like to see a Democratic governor of Florida. I would like to see a Democratic governor of New Hampshire. I went to support my friend, the Democratic governor of Maine. So I've been supporting Democrats my whole life and I'm going to continue to do that even as governor.
You know some of your opponents like to portray you as being very Chicago focused. We're here in Bloomington, Illinois. I know you're going others places downstate today. You spend plenty of time downstate. But do you have a pitch for voters who — maybe they voted for Trump once, these are not the hardcore MAGA people, maybe even twice — but that they should support you for reelection? What is your pitch to the MAGA voter out there?
Look, I think whoever you voted for in the last election for president or four years earlier for president, I think the same things are challenges for working families across the state, right? It's the kitchen table issues: How are you going to pay for your kids to go to college? How are you going to make enough money to pay for your mortgage or pay your rent? Are you going to be able to save for retirement; is someone going to secure that retirement income for you? These are all things that I have focused on in my four years in office.
So what I would say to people is recognize that the things that are most important in your life are the things that I as Democratic governor of the state have focused on, and that Democrats have focused on and gotten done. Remember the terrible shape the state was in four years ago, where we had two years without a budget. Where we had a governor that was working against the the working people of Illinois, working against raising wages —thought we should lower wages — I'm running against one now, who thinks we ought to get rid of the state minimum wage. It's shocking to me. I think you ought to be focused on raising wages for people across the state.
So what would I say to MAGA Republicans? I would tell them that I'm working hard to make sure that their standard of living is raised, that we're providing and creating jobs across all of Illinois and in areas where maybe there's a large number of people who supported Donald Trump. And I don't distinguish one from another — every person that lives in Illinois is deserving of the focus and attention of the governor of our state. I have always said this: We are one Illinois. And it's one of the reasons why you've seen so many of the investments that I've made over the last four years have been in central and southern and northwestern Illinois, which are places where I don't live, but I represent.
Governor Pritzker, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.