By MARK GLENNON
How many fibs can Gov. JB Pritzker pack in a ten-minute interview?
Jerry Nowicki of Capital News Illinois challenged Pritzker on why the $4.2 billion deficit in Illinois’ unemployment trust fund has been ignored, and asked why it wasn’t reduced using funds from federal government under ARPA, the American Rescue Plan Act.
This is important because it’s a huge part of why Illinois’ budget isn’t remotely close to being honestly balanced, despite Pritzker’s contrary claims. The state entirely ignored the unemployment fund debt in its budget, which has been running up since the start of the pandemic.
Use of ARPA funds was not allowed, Pritzker answered. “You can’t actually use ARPA funds according to the rules of ARPA,” he said.
That’s patently false.
As Nowicki pointed out in his article after the interview, federal rules published in May expressly allow use of ARPA funds for that purpose. As far back as that month, at least 29 states had already done so, the Associated Press reported then. Businesses could thereby “be spared billions of dollars of higher taxes in coming years,” wrote the AP about those other states, “potentially freeing up money to spend on employees or invest in their operations – as a result of federal coronavirus aid flowing to the states.”
Could Pritzker merely have been unaware of what the rule actually is?
Hardly. Plenty of headlines covered the authorization for use of the funds for unemployment trusts aside from the AP. We, too, wrote about it in June. During the budget negotiations in May, a number of legislators tried to insist that the fund be addressed with ARPA money.
And in July, 23 Illinois business groups sent an open letter to Pritzker expressly asking that ARPA money be used for that purpose, citing the federal rule that authorized it.
Pritzker also tried to blow smoke over the matter by implying that other states have the same problem, saying, “We are not the only state that is facing this. All across the nation there are states that owe billions of dollars in deficits….”
It’s not all across the nation. Nowicki properly pointed out it’s only 17 or 18 states with deficits.
Also note that the scope of the problem is not just $4.2 billion, which was the number discussed in the interview. That’s just the amount that’s owed to the federal government on a loan the trust fund took out. At least another billion dollars is needed to return the fund to where it was when the pandemic began.
While giving his answer, Pritzker also claimed that “The biggest thing preventing people from getting back to work is child care and sometimes elderly care.”
That’s highly debatable, at best. There are many reasons why people aren’t returning to work, and child care may well be a reason why some have always chosen not to work. But child care is no less available today, with the state’s unemployment rate at 7.2%, than it was before the pandemic when the rate was under 4%.
Nowicki then asked Pritzker about the pension crisis, which Pritzker brushed off by saying twice that “we have been paying down the pension obligation.”
That’s utter nonsense. The unfunded pension liability has grown and grown every year and has peaked under Pritzker because annual pension contributions are not enough even to allow the pensions to tread water.
Pritzker tried to obfuscate the issue by saying that the funding goal under the current payment schedule is 90% instead of 100% as actuaries want, and said we are paying down pensions “in accordance with the statute.” That’s again just blowing smoke. The problem would be still worse if the target were 100% and the plain fact is that we are not “paying down” the pension problem by any measure, statutory or otherwise.
Pritzker gave many interviews over the past week after announcing he will run for reelection. I did not read a single one, other than Nowicki’s, that was worth reading. The others asked the bland questions that got predictable answers, with no challenging follow-up.
Props to Nowicki for coming to his interview prepared on the unemployment trust fund issue and challenging Pritzker on it. Pritzker probably assumed that he could get away with saying whatever he wants.
He usually does.
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