Editorial: Pritzker's plan to match top staffers' salary is problematic

  • J.B. Pritzker takes the oath of office from Judge James Snyder as his wife M.K. looks on Monday.

    J.B. Pritzker takes the oath of office from Judge James Snyder as his wife M.K. looks on Monday. Associated Press

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted1/16/2019 1:00 AM

J.B. Pritzker made waves in the days before his inauguration with the announcement that he plans to match salaries for top staffers with his own money.

The move would apply to 20 different positions and allow the new governor to pay his chief of staff Anne Caprara, for example, almost $300,000.

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Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said the governor "is committed to recruiting top talent to state government to best address the challenges Illinois faces."

It's an admirable goal, but dipping into his own pockets -- no matter how deep -- is highly problematic.

Last year's Illinois gubernatorial election between Pritzker and predecessor Bruce Rauner was dubbed "the battle of the billionaires," with record-breaking amounts spent between the two candidates and Pritzker himself spending more than $171 million of his own money. He also contributed to the campaigns of many legislators.

In endorsing Pritzker over Republican Rauner, we shared our concerns about the Democrat's ability to buy the governorship and much of the legislature. Here, he'd be taking that checkbook philosophy one step further.

A Forbes article published just after the November election set his wealth in context, naming Pritzker the richest sitting politician in the nation. Worth an estimated $3.2 billion, the Hyatt hotel heir -- upon taking office Monday -- bumped President Donald Trump from Forbes' No. 1 spot.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

So, clearly, the governor can afford to foot the bill for staff pay boosts. But that doesn't mean he should.

In an Illinois News Network article posted Friday, State Rep. Grant Wehrli, a Republican from Naperville, raised legitimate concerns about mixing state salaries and private money.

"Who do they work for?" he asked. "Do they work for the people of the state of Illinois? Or do they have a greater loyalty to the governor as that's where a large chunk of their income comes from?"

In addition, Wehrli questioned setting a precedent that only the wealthiest future governors could sustain.

We share Wehrli's concerns and have others. Boosting salaries to attract top talent is one thing; doubling them at a time when the state is struggling financially is another.

Plus, the governor's generosity can trickle down only so far. Critics, for example, point out that nonunion middle managers have faced salary freezes for 15 or more years. How are other state employees to view the disparity?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And where do you draw the line?

Yes, Pritzker's concerns about attracting and retaining top talent are valid. In fact, Rauner shared that worry. He even floated an idea to create a foundation to generate money for this very reason. Perhaps that proposal is worth revisiting.

In the meantime, Pritzker should work with lawmakers to make salaries more competitive -- within reason, of course. If, ultimately, he has to accept salaries that fall short of ideal, he'll be in good company. After all, that's how many Illinoisans feel.

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