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State

Pritzker seeks higher salaries to attract top Cabinet talent

Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker talks with President Donald Trump during a meeting with newly elected governors Dec. 13 in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington.
Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker talks with President Donald Trump during a meeting with newly elected governors Dec. 13 in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington.

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois lawmakers on Monday backed initiatives pushed by Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, including giving approval to a change in state law to increase salaries by 15 percent for Cabinet members he hopes to hire.

The Democrat doesn't take office for another week. But a Democratic-controlled House panel still passed the plan that would boost salaries. The transportation secretary and prison system directors, for example, would be paid $172,500 a year instead of the current $150,000. Pritzker said current salaries are not competitive .

The Executive Committee also voted unanimously to allow Pritzker to replace all current members of the Illinois Tollway board, citing questionable spending and contracting.

The Cabinet-level salary bump is necessary to entice competent leadership to a state still smarting from billions of dollars of debt and other struggles in recent years, said Rep. Christian Mitchell, the Chicago Democrat sponsoring the measure .

"We cannot fix Illinois, fix the things wrong with the state, if we don't have the top talent to do so," said Mitchell, who leaves the Legislature on Wednesday to join Pritzker's administration as a deputy governor.

Pritzker will be inaugurated Jan. 14. The governor's salary is $177,400.

Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh released data showing Illinois trailing behind other states in Cabinet compensation. California and Texas pay their Corrections Department chiefs about $265,000. The Texas transportation director makes $300,000.

While the director of the Illinois State Police earns $140,000, Connecticut pays its top cop $183,000. New York is phasing in $190,000 salaries for each of five top Cabinet spots.

Rep. Tim Butler, a Republican from Springfield, said nonunionized mid-level managers have had salaries frozen in many cases for 15 years or more.

"These are mid-level managers who do the bulk of the work," Butler said.

Responding to Butler, Mitchell said the salaries would cost an additional $700,000 and would be covered in the current fiscal year by about $1.6 million set aside for contingencies. Earlier, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs said Pritzker's "request is not out of line" and that the GOP would go along with it as a good-faith gesture of cooperation with the new administration.

House cleaning at the Tollway board, which oversees 294 miles of pay-to-use interstate highways in northeastern Illinois, is prompted by reports in the Daily Herald that found the board hired Durkin's sister-in-law as engineering manager despite her background in furniture sales, a $6.6 million public-relations contract was given to the firm of the wife of another Republican lawmaker, and an engineering firm was selected for a $157 million contract that employs the children of Tollway executives.

A Tollway spokeswoman said she had no comment.

House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat sponsoring the proposal, said it also requires the board to adopt bylaws covering conflicts of interest.

"This is an opportunity to clean up an area of government where we have not been as transparent, as accountable, as the citizens would like us to be," Currie said.

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