SPRINGFIELD — Illinois’ new governor plans to match the state salaries of his top employees with his own money, a practice that one Republican lawmaker said raises enough ethical questions that he’s considering filing legislation to prohibit it.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker created a private entity called East Jackson Street LLC to funnel private dollars to match the taxpayer-funded state salaries of his top aides such as deputy governors and communication staff, according to multiple media reports.
Pritzker’s transition team didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
State Rep. Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, said he has concerns about augmenting state employee salaries with private dollars.
“Who do they work for? 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?”
Wehrli said there’s also the precedent of setting the bar too high for when a non-billionaire governor takes office.
Pritzker’s deputy governors would each get $139,000 from a taxpayer subsidized salary and $139,000 from a private entity for a total $278,000, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Pritzker’s chief of staff would get $298,000, the majority from private dollars. Top communication staff like the press secretary and communications director would also get private dollars to match their taxpayer-paid salary.
This does not affect state agency heads and their assistants.
Wehrli had even more concerns about Pritzker’s recent move for his offices’ top staff, Wehrli said.
“Will this allow undue influence on people based on private concerns of where their pay is coming from,” Wehrli said.
Wehrli said he plans to draft and file legislation addressing such arrangements to perhaps prohibit the activity in the future.
Freshman state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, D-Naperville, sees the ethical questions around the issue, like who the top staff really work for, the taxpayer or the billionaire, but that’s a reason why such salaries should be increased.
“That actually covers the actual expenses that people incur on the path to being well educated enough to fulfill these responsibilities,” Stava-Murray said.
The previous General Assembly that wrapped up Wednesday before the new class of lawmakers took their seats passed a bill to allow the Pritzker administration to increase the salary of department heads and their assistants by 15 percent.
In reaction to that legislation, Gov. Bruce Rauner, while still in office, said agency heads are underpaid for the work they do in Illinois. He wanted to create a foundation to generate private money to augment pay for top staff to attract talent. That was rejected by the “powers that be” in the General Assembly, Rauner said.
State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, said as long as the private dollars supplementing salaries for Pritzker’s top staff is all transparent, he doesn’t mind. He thinks Pritzker should cut the taxpayer cost and pay for more out of his own pocket, including to cover the bill passed in lame duck to increase department heads’ salaries by 15 percent.
“Depending on who you listen to, it’s up to a million dollars a year it could cost, maybe $700,000 on the low end, that’s like pocket change to Pritzker,” McSweeney said. “Why doesn’t he just say he won’t sign that bill and that he’ll pay for it himself.”
Pritzker has an estimated net worth of $3.2 billion according to Forbes.