“The devil is in the details,” state Comptroller Susana Mendoza reminded me over coffee a couple of weeks ago at a diner on Chicago’s northwest side.
She was referring to one of the few policy proposals Gov. JB Pritzker laid out in as he was sworn into a second term last month.
Pritzker, one of the most progressive governors in the history of the state and a potential 2024 presidential candidate if Joe Biden chooses not to seek another term, seems to be attempting to solidify himself as the big government daddy for Democratic voters in early primary states.
The governor is set to push for free college tuition for “working families” along with free preschool and free childcare.
What he hasn’t done, though, is tell us how much it will cost and how he plans to pay for it. Neither his office nor the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget (GOMB), which scores these ideas, is saying anything either. Mainstream media has done a poor job of asking Pritzker more about the only policy priority he seems to have on the horizon.
The cost of providing free college education would depend on several factors, such as the number of students that qualify. If the governor’s definition of “working class” is students who already qualify for MAP grants, then it isn’t likely to expand spending that much. If the plan were to open eligibility more widely, yikes.
Additionally, the cost would also depend on whether the free education would be limited to public institutions or open to private institutions as well. Should the state be paying tuition to Northwestern or Illinois Wesleyan or another private religious school?
Childcare isn’t cheap. As the father of a 14-month-old, I’ve seen it firsthand.
Some European countries provide free or subsidized childcare. Denmark and France, for example, have universal childcare systems where most or all families have access to affordable, high-quality childcare. In the United States, the federal government provides subsidies for low-income.
Illinois has faced significant financial challenges over the last decade or more, including a large budget deficit and enormous debt. The pension systems remain among the worst funded in the United States. There has been a sliver of light in the darkness of the state’s finances. Thanks to higher-than-expected tax revenue and a few billion bucks from the Biden Administration, the budget is balanced, there’s money in the rainy day fund, and bills are being paid.
Now seems like the time to blow that all up, doesn’t it? Democrats have unchecked power in state government and you can imagine the ideas they want to spend taxpayer money on. Who will keep them in check? Republicans don’t have the authority to order lunch, much less provide checks and balances on outsized spending in Springfield.
Everyone can agree we want more Illinois students graduating from Illinois colleges. It prevents the brain drain underway to Indiana, Iowa or Wisconsin or places with a superior climate. Studies show giving kids a good start through early childhood education sets them on a path to success. And, of course, a single mom working two jobs to make ends meet could use some help paying for day care. But, at what cost?
It leads to big questions facing lawmakers this year: can government be everything to everyone?
It’s clear the governor wants a list of wins on social issues to boost his progressive bona fides in the hopes of a run for president someday.
In the meantime, we’ll see if there’s a devil in the details.
• Patrick Pfingsten is a former journalist and Republican strategist who writes The Illinoize statewide political newsletter. Read more at www.theillinoize.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.