J.B. Pritzker Interview — On Marijuana, Energy Legislation, Ethics, And The Speaker
Tuesday marks one year since J.B. Pritzker was sworn in as governor of Illinois. Since then, the state has raised its minimum wage, legalized marijuana, and passed several other pieces of legislation long sought by Democrats.
Pritzker marked the occasion with a series of interviews, including with our Statehouse reporter.
The brief conversation touched on marijuana, ethics, the fate of clean-energy legislation, and the value of red-light cameras.
Have you consumed any marijuana since legalization on January 1?
No, I have not.
Have you ever consumed marijuana?
Oh, sure, when I was younger, I did, but it's been a long time.
We know the law limits marijuana to people age 21 and older, but this would not be the first such product that made its way to underage consumers. What do you tell your own children about using marijuana?
Well, I make it clear number one to all children — and my own certainly — that number one, it's illegal for them to consume cannabis in any fashion whatsoever. Number two, that there are real effects, negative effects, on young people if they do consume. There's interference with the growth of their brains of their intellectual capability, et cetera.
It's important for young people to know what the dangers are for them during those formative years. It's one of the reasons why it's important that we have a minimum age of 21 and older for people who are consuming cannabis.
Do you have concerns about the normalization of marijuana use — even among adults?
Well, I think we all need to step back. You know, when we ask about normalizing cannabis consumption, we have to step back and recognize people were already consuming it. Masses of people. They were consuming something that was potentially unsafe, as we saw with the production, illegal production of THC vaping products. They were consuming something they didn't know where it was coming from. So it was completely unregulated and the laws around it or being prosecuted in unfair ways, in ways that the negative impact of which we're trying to reverse. So let's start with the fact that people were already consuming it.
A second point I'd make is that you know when you're buying an illegal product from an illegal seller, that illegal seller is also selling other illegal drugs. And so I think the availability of cannabis is is making it safer for families for for people who are looking to consume, because they can go to a regulated dispensary and purchase a well manufactured product that is safe.
I want to move to a topic that's been in the news this week: red light cameras. They've come up in multiple federal investigations the controller said she would stop helping municipalities enforce collection of fines. Is there a safety benefit to those devices — to red light cameras? Or are they just an ATM for local governments?
Yeah, well, first of all, I understand from many law enforcement and public safety officials that they often believe that there are, in fact, public safety benefits to to having red light cameras. And certainly we want people to obey the law and know that there are consequences for not obeying law. We have too many traffic accidents, and this is a way to help deter traffic accidents. So that's what I know from the professionals in the arena.
The controller herself said that it seems like there are a lot of abuses. These are targeting lower income people — maybe targeting is not the right word — but lower-income people are disproportionately affected by the collections her office was was doing. Is that worrying to you?
It is. And in fact, you heard me say during my victory speech in November 2018 that it's very important to me to alleviate the burdens on, particularly, low income people of having their livelihood taken away by these kind of low-level fines that they're being held responsible for.
I think I was referring, in part then to parking tickets. But it certainly is appropriate to point to traffic tickets as another example of that. We don't want people to lose their livelihood. We do want them to follow the law and know that there are consequences to not following the law. But in the end, if you're low income and you can't afford to pay one of these tickets, we shouldn't take away your only way of actually getting any income to help pay it off by virtue of taking away your license or restricting other activities that would ultimately allow you to to keep your job, get a job and so on.
I want to move to some legislative issues that I think could be topics of discussion when the General Assembly reconvenes later this month. Clean energy legislation has been tied to demands from the electric utility ComEd and parent company Exelon. Given the federal investigation, is that green energy initiative dead on account of that, or should it be handled separately?
Oh, it is very much alive. Getting Illinois to comply, to move forward in our desire to bring more clean energy, to bring more renewable energy to our state — that's something that I believe very strongly, and we're going to be working on during this spring session.
We also have other major utilities that we need to consider. As you know, we produce a lot of nuclear power in the state. We produce a lot of other power, and all of that needs to be taken into consideration as we look to create a more environmentally friendly energy production, and as we try to lower costs for people across the state, and continue to be one of the most attractive states in terms of energy prices.
So we have a lot of work to do — and it's going to be in the spring session for sure — but that work is very much aimed toward us moving to complying with the Paris Climate Accords and the U.S. Climate Alliance, which I've committed our state to.
When you say nuclear energy, that means Exelon and that means the potential of federal investigators listening in on phone calls. Do you feel confident you can negotiate on that topic with that company?
Well what I know is that you can't do energy legislation that's all-encompassing for the state without considering nuclear energy and other forms of production of energy. So we've got to consider all of that in the negotiations. And who represents them or that interest is yet to be seen, but important to me that they clean up their act and that if — whatever it is that the federal government discovers — that they act quickly so that we can move forward, because we've got to address the energy needs of our state and we've got to move toward cleaner energy.
While the federal government moves away from clean energy, Illinois has got to move the opposite direction to make up for the failures of the Trump administration.
Ethics is obviously a topic that's been top of mind in Illinois government for at least several months now, if not several decades. Should legislators' email be subject to open-records requests the way it is for people in the executive branch?
You know, I haven't specifically thought about whether FOIA should apply to legislators, if that's your question. What I will say is that more transparency is better, and that's why one of the things that I pushed for and got passed in the veto session was lobbyist disclosures and more transparency there.
We should know who lobbyists represent. We should know who their subcontractors are representing. We should know what the dollars are that a company is giving to a legislator along with what lobbyists are giving money to legislators. And know who all of that is representing, so that legislators are held accountable for the votes that they make and the money that they're receiving, in theory, potentially in exchange for those votes.
But the people who are charged or being investigated by the federal government are not the ones that — the sort of big names — are legislators themselves, not lobbyists. I think there are people who say that lobbyists are not the problem here, as much as legislators themselves.
If I may say you're overlooking the topic you brought up earlier, which is Commonwealth Edison, one of the major lobbyists in Springfield. So certainly it's true that there are individual legislators — and we have to address those things, too.
There are big questions here about about how to accomplish the goal here of rooting out these corrupt legislators more easily, and I think transparency is a big way to do that — letting the public, letting the press, do work that will help bring to light some of these problems.
It is true that bad people will do bad things, so we need to stop electing those people to public office. But let's also recognize that the legislators that have been caught have been charged with things that are already on the books, the laws that are already on the books. So the question really is how do we make it easier for us to catch people who are the wrong-doers.
One last question, and it's a it's a softball: For the people of Illinois, is it a net positive or a net negative that House Speaker Michael Madigan continues in power?
Look, I am the leader of this state. I'm the governor of the state. And I set an agenda, and I have gone to the legislature and to the leaders of legislature with that agenda. And for the most part, we have passed much of the agenda that I put forward for last year. And so I intend to keep working with whoever is holding those offices going forward.
I believe that it is a positive that I am getting my agenda through, and I'm looking forward to continuing the progress that we've made and to bring a greater optimism and success to our state, as we did over the last year.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.