CHICAGO — Back when Gov. J.B. Pritzker was secretly spending taxpayer cash on private charter flights to China to buy personal protective gear as the coronavirus crisis hit Illinois, some people would ask to poke the billionaire for not kicking in the kind of cash he spent to get elected — $171 million of his own money — to help people struggling under his stay-at-home order.
At the time, that didn’t seem fair. Pritzker did donate $4 million to the Illinois COVID-19 Response fund. Even a billionaire doesn’t deserve to be criticized for not donating enough of his own money to help people during unprecedented pandemic.
But I changed my mind about that after seeing a campaign finance disclosure filed late Friday — the start of the July 4th holiday weekend — that showed the Hyatt Hotel heir peeled off $51 million of his inherited fortune to fund a marketing campaign aimed at convincing voters to cast ballots in favor of amending the state constitution to impose a structural tax increase.
Forking over all that money for political spin to win votes — $52 million more than he donated for coronavirus relief — just seems like another example of Pritzker prioritizing politics over people to me.
It also doesn’t seem very democratic — let alone good public policy — for the governor to bankroll what looks like an attempt to buy voter support for a constitutional amendment, particularly a structural tax hike that might not be such a good idea amid an awful economy.
But that isn’t a surprise. It’s the Pritzker way. His self-funded election campaign successfully helped co-opt support from a broad spectrum of political constituencies.
And just before election day in 2018, Pritzker cut a $7 million check to a political fund controlled by House Speaker Michael Madigan. Some people say that’s why the governor had an easier time advancing his legislative agenda than any of his predecessors, either Republican or Democrat, since Madigan became state House speaker 35 years ago.
Pritzker even uses his own cash to boost the annual salaries of his top staffers, in some cases $100,000 more than those jobs paid in previous administrations.
Tapping his fortune to champion a tax-the-rich change to the state’s income tax structure — from a flat-rate to a graduated tax based on income — follows the billionaire’s political playbook.
When he needs a win — like this tax code change insiders say Pritzker hopes elevates him from Illinois’ jolly weed legalizer to viable U.S. presidential candidate — money is no object.
Earlier this year, Pritzker donated $5 million to the “Vote Yes For Fairness” group run by his former deputy campaign manager to drum up votes for the constitutional amendment to change the state income tax system on the November ballot.
Most of that cash has been used to pay New York and Washington D.C.-based consulting firms with expertise in political poling and media messaging.
Last year, power brokers who pushed the graduated income tax proposal — Madigan and Senate President Don Harmon, for instance — argued the proposed income changes allows our cash-strapped state to make the wealthy pay a fair share to balance the budget and ease the tax burden on middle class families.
Now, the opponents of what Pritzker calls a “fair tax” argue Illinoisans devastated by the financial fallout from the coronavirus crisis can’t afford another tax hike. They claim the ballot-initiative will hurt small businesses, force more jobs out of state, and make it easier for lawmakers to squeeze middle class families and the working poor later.
Pritzker’s $51 million cash infusion could be a sign that high-priced consultants agree pandemic economics will make it a tough to win 60-percent of votes needed to adopt the constitutional amendment, which is projected to collect an additional $3.6 billion from taxpayers every year.
A “Vote Yes For Fairness” advertisement that debuted online Tuesday definitely massaged the “fair tax” message with a coronavirus twist, making the argument: “It’s not fair to force our essential workers to pay the same tax rate as millionaires and billionaires.”
If that kind of political spin is worth gambling $56 million of his inherited wealth, well, that’s on Pritzker.
But it’s hard to see what’s so fair about a governor leveraging his billions to court votes for a tax increase.
Not when more than 1 million Illinoisans are out of work, and so many of them struggled received unemployment benefits when they needed them most.
Not when nearly 2 million people rely on food assistance programs and community pantries are serving more people than ever before.
Not when 20 percent of restaurants statewide are expected to permanently close.
And not when almost every weekend this summer, a new tsunami of shootings has crashed on poor Black neighborhoods in Chicago long starved of economic investment, opportunity and hope — the same communities also have suffered most from COVID-19.
There’s got to be a better way for our governor to spend $56 million during times like these.
But what do I know? I’m not a billionaire who wants to be president some day.
Mark Konkol, recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting, wrote and produced the Peabody Award-winning series, “Time: The Kalief Browder Story.” He was a producer, writer and narrator for the “Chicagoland” docu-series on CNN, and a consulting producer on the Showtime documentary, “16 Shots.
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This article originally appeared on the Chicago Patch