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Pritzker touts increased focus on access to college, job training in proposed state budget

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker speaks about proposed higher education funding as, from left Mayor Rita Ali, Illinois Central College President Sheila Quirk-Bailey, State Sen. Dave Koehler, and State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth listen during a news conference Tuesday at ICC's Peoria campus.
Joe Deacon
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker speaks about proposed higher education funding as, from left Peoria Mayor Rita Ali, Illinois Central College President Sheila Quirk-Bailey, State Sen. Dave Koehler, and State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth listen during a news conference Tuesday at ICC's Peoria campus.

Gov. JB Pritzker says Illinois needs to prioritize improving access to higher education and job training, and programs in his proposed state budget for the 2023 fiscal year will help accomplish that goal.

“When state government creates policies that really open doors for our residents, that's the kind of investment that we want to double down on, especially as we shape our pandemic recovery,” Pritzker said Tuesday during an appearance at Illinois Central College’s Peoria campus.

Hoping to mirror the success of the state’s Workforce Equity Initiative for students at ICC and other community colleges, Pritzker advocated for a proposed $25 million Pipeline for the Advancement of Healthcare Workers (PATH) program to recruit and train students for careers in the medical field and related industries.

“Participants will be able to get an industry-recognized credential or community college certificate in the shortest possible amount of time, while enhancing their eligibility for employment as nurses and certified nursing assistants, respiratory therapists, emergency medical technicians, and other high-demand positions,” he said.

Appearing alongside Peoria Mayor Rita Ali, State Sen. Dave Koehler, and State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, Pritzker also touted a $2 million increase to the state’s nursing education scholarship program, doubling the funding for nurse educator fellowships and competitive grants, and eliminating licensing fees for 470,000 nurses, physicians, social workers, and other health care professionals.

“We're creating opportunities in underserved communities for Illinois residents to build great careers,” he said. “Health care, manufacturing, business, law - no matter what profession they head toward, a great system of higher education has to be supported and affordable for our state's residents.”

Ali said the increased focus on higher education “comes at just the right time and just the right place.”

“Contrary to what some may think, the Peoria area does not have a workforce ‘people’ shortage. It does not,” said Ali. “We have a workforce ‘skills’ shortage. These new opportunities will enable us to take many people that we already have in our community and give them the skills that they need to fulfill all the jobs that we have available now and in the coming future.”

Pritzker said the Workforce Equity Initiative (WEI) has enrolled more than 5,000 students across 100 in-demand career training programs at community colleges across the state since the program’s inception. Danielle Pate, a WEI product and graduate of ICC’s Licensed Practical Nursing program, said she greatly benefited from the opportunity.

“It was definitely a blessing to be able to focus mainly on school and receive any assistance that I needed at the time, whether it's just maybe putting gas in the car or receiving stipends to go towards paying any bills,” said Pate. “They’re just a safe haven and they walk you through it. Yes, we have to put in the work and it’s a tough program, but if you apply yourself you can definitely get it done.”

Gordon-Booth said programs like WEI help to eliminate inequities in higher education while working to match career training programs with employment opportunities in the marketplace.

“The community college system is uniquely positioned to meet those workforce needs of the 21st century in a way that, frankly, no other organization in our community has the capacity to do,” she said.

Koehler, who co-chairs the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, called Pritzker’s proposed budget “nothing short of a miracle” and praised the increased attention to college affordability and access to job training.

“We're making investments in what are the priorities for the people of the state: education. We are expanding the educational budget because that's what we have to do if we're going to ever have the future that we want,” he said.

Pritzker pushed back against criticism that increased state spending and higher taxes are driving residents out of Illinois, directing blame toward the preceding administration of former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

“What drives people out of a state is instability, and that's what we had before I became governor we had two years without a budget,” Pritzker said. “State government was hollowed out. Programs — like programs that support students who want to go to ICC — were decimated. The investments in our institutions (were) taken away.

“Over the last three years, we balanced the budget. Now, we have a surplus for the first time in 25 years, and we're being very responsible about how we're utilizing that surplus — both to get people into school, to make sure that we're upgrading our educational institutions, but also to pay the bills that were left behind from that budget impasse.”

Pritzker said he understands residents' concerns about their personal expenses with inflation at a 40-year high and hopes it won't have a “deleterious effect” on the state's economy.

“Global inflation is a challenge for everyone. Here in Illinois, our obligation is to try to help people deal with that, and so that's why I introduced $1 billion of tax cuts that will go right into the pockets of consumers, whether it's cutting the grocery tax, cutting property taxes, freezing the gas tax,” he said. “These are all things that I think help in a variety of ways for families across the state.

“We need to do more whenever we can, and we're only able to do this, by the way, because we balanced the budget, because we have a surplus. We need to stay on that fiscal discipline path so that we can do these kinds of things to alleviate the burden of inflation.”

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.