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DECATUR — Citing Decatur's plan to highlight apprenticeship and vocational training programs, J.B. Pritzker said Friday the city has turned itself into a model the rest of the state could follow.

The Democratic candidate for governor, joined by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Springfield Democrat, made the comments while taking part in a roundtable discussion Friday afternoon at International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 146’s Training Center.

The discussion, which included local elected officials, educators and representatives from local labor unions and businesses, was meant to showcase ways to strengthen the middle class and get people into the workforce outside the traditional four-year university.

“Decatur, I think, is a real center for opportunity for us to demonstrate that about our state,” said Pritzker, who defeated four other candidates in the March primary to face first-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in November. 

The visit was part of Pritzker's three-day, 12-stop "Unite for the Middle Class" tour across Illinois.

Among the items brought up during the round table was the creation of the Dwayne O. Andreas Ag Academy, a program paid for by a $1.65 million grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to introduce high schoolers to a career in agriculture. 

Such initiatives at the local level are great, Pritzker said, adding he wants the state to do more to get these programs into more schools and communities. To do that, he said the state could change the way it funds K-12 schools to add more resources or incentivize communities to create such programs.

The idea, Pritzker said, is not to discourage students who want to go to college, but rather to help those who want to start a middle-class or better career after high school.

Decatur Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe and others called for a more "stable" situation in Springfield, which would allow for more certainty when budgeting or recruiting potential businesses, and infrastructure work like repairing state roads like U.S. Business 51.

“The state won’t pave our roads, and people are running away from Illinois, and it hurts us,” she said.

Pritzker said he will make creating a capital bill a priority if elected in November, but how to pay for it remains to be seen.

With the President Donald Trump's administration asking for an 80 percent match in local and state funds for infrastructure projects, Pritzker said state leaders will have to look at a number of revenue streams to pay for a capital bill, likely to cost billions of dollars.

Options floated by Pritzker on Friday include a graduated income tax he hopes to get approved once elected, revenue from legalizing and taxing marijuana and, when the state’s credit rating improves, borrowing.

“It pays back for the people of Illinois to invest in our infrastructure because we attract jobs when we do it,” Pritzker said.

Contact Ryan Voyles at (217) 421-7985. Follow him on Twitter: @RVVoyles

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