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Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019 12:33 am

Big job ahead for deputy governors

Gov. JB Pritzker announced last week that he had picked Sol Flores to be his fourth deputy governor. He’d previously announced deputy governors Dan Hynes, Christian Mitchell and Jesse Ruiz.

Pritzker’s deputy governors are each overseeing a block of related state agencies and departments and track their progress on goals that the governor wants those entities to meet. They’ll also ensure that the agency and department directors are all cooperating with each other whenever and wherever needed. Flores will oversee human service agencies, Hynes has budget and economic development, Ruiz has education and Mitchell will handle the capital bill, among other things.

Pritzker specifically pointed to the issue of Medicaid during a recent interview with me. He said he wants to make sure that the Illinois Department of Health and Family Services and the Illinois Department of Human Services are “working together,” rather than operating in their own individual agency “silos.”

So, Flores will have a big job to do. Those two agencies cover everything from health care, to child care, to long term care, to cash and food assistance, to housing programs, to mental health, to child support to everything in between. They do, indeed, need to be working together better. Both departments are the products of lots of past mergers of smaller agencies, but forcing yet another merger could once again disrupt operations for months or even years.

By all accounts, these new deputy governors are very capable, bright, intelligent people. Flores built a much-admired organization from the ground up that provides shelter to homeless people and works to prevent homelessness, but she’s never overseen anything close to this huge before. And, for that matter, neither has anyone else at the top of Pritzker’s administration, except for Ruiz, who served as vice president of the Chicago Public Schools Board and then its interim CEO. Hynes was a state comptroller for 12 years, but that’s not exactly a gigantic agency. Mitchell was a legislator who served a stint as interim executive director of the Democratic Party of Illinois.

They’re all taking jobs where you can’t really get the required experience until you do it. And their tasks are enormous if Pritzker truly wants to rebuild the government after years of neglect, whether through deliberate disregard or incompetence, or just because bad stuff happened and the state wasn’t ready or able to deal with it.

I’ve pointed this out before, but this state’s fiscal condition has not recovered since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which vastly accelerated a downward economic slide and literally dried up state revenues and forced up government costs around the same time that state pension payments were finally starting to really ratchet up.

And then came the 2008 worldwide financial and real estate crash. And then came the partial expiration of the 2011 income tax hike in 2015 (a tax hike which basically just helped pay state pension costs and didn’t do much to rebuild government), followed by a two-year governmental impasse that, among other things, wreaked havoc on our social services provider network, followed by another inadequate tax hike and two substandard state budgets.

Throughout all this, health care, state employee and pension costs continued to rise. As a result, state agencies have been forced to rely on sorely inadequate resources to do more. Much, probably most of that destruction was endured by human and social services. And now some of those same crucial providers are suffering yet again under the partial federal government shutdown.

I do not envy Ms. Flores one iota. She arguably has one of the toughest and one of the most important jobs in all of Illinois government.

So, good luck, Sol, you’re gonna need it.

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