In his annual State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Pat Quinn gave members of the General Assembly a laundry list of legislation he’d like to see passed, affecting everything from the minimum wage to guns to pensions. Brian Mackey has more:
Governor Quinn called on lawmakers to make a series of what he called hard decisions. It was a theme he kept returning to, over and over again:
QUINN MONTAGE: “We must remember that hard is not impossible. … Achieving this reform was not easy, but hard is not impossible. … Hard is not impossible.”
Those hard decisions include whether to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour from its current $8.25. He asked lawmakers to make it legal for same sex couples to get married. And he once again called for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
QUINN: “Of course we must abide by the Second Amendment. But there is no place in our state for military-style assault weapons designed for rapid fire at human targets at close range.”
Republicans, predictably, were not impressed. Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka says before the governor’s ideas can be put into law, he needs to get the state on more sound financial footing.
TOPINKA: “I love the warm fuzzies like the best of us. But I like to pay for my warm fuzzies.”
Other Republicans saw political motives in Quinn’s speech.
DILLARD: “Well this was clearly the beginning of an election campaign for Pat Quinn.”
That’s Kirk Dillard, a Republican senator from Hinsdale who will likely be running for governor himself in 2014. Dillard objected to Quinn’s focus on gun control and what he called social issues.
DILLARD: “When I thought he should really stress more private-sector job creation and pension reform, which is our state’s most pressing problem.”
RAOUL: “Since when has the State of the State address not talked about these things? Politics and governing are intertwined.”
Sen. Kwame Raoul is a Democrat from Chicago. While he defended the apparently political motives behind parts of Quinn’s speech, when asked whether he had an overall positive or negative opinion, he said …
RAOUL: “Neutral. You know, it’s a good speech. But, you know, that’s nice — it’s a speech. I’m more interested in speeches that are given after it’s done. Not speeches that say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do this.’ Speeches that say, ‘Hey, we did it.'”
Raoul said he’s heard talk of fixing the underfunded pensions system in State of the States since he was first appointed in 2004. He says he won’t get excited about it until it moves from talk to action.
And Raoul wasn’t the only lawmaker who said the governor should have focused more on pensions. In a speech that lasted just under 40 minutes, Quinn spent just two-and-a-half minutes talking about pensions. Sen. Dave Syverson, a Republican from Rockford, acknowledged there’s no easy solution to Illinois’ pension underfunding, which is approaching $100 billion.
SYVERSON: “If they’re serious about it, the governor’s going to say, ‘Everyone stays here until it’s done — nobody leaves,’ instead of just talking about it, sending out a press release, and then going about their ways.”
Setting aside the general criticism about the governor’s speech, forces are already lining up to oppose his specific proposals. Quinn called for a ban on assault weapons, but gun enthusiasts are focused on concealed carry — a federal court has given Illinois until June to pass a law that allows people to carry guns in public. And business groups are lining up to oppose the minimum wage hike. Todd Maisch is with the Illinois Chamber of Commerce:
MAISCH: “Here Illinois is with the fourth highest minimum wage already and 8.7 percent unemployment rate — that’s unacceptably high and it’s been that way for a long time. So I think employers are shaking their heads and saying, ‘Is this a state government that has any idea what it takes to run a business and actually create jobs?'”
But those fights will come later this spring. For the governor, the State of the State address is a day of promise and optimism. Quinn invoked the sacrifices and courage of veterans in encouraging lawmakers to summon political courage.
QUINN: “With courage, hard is not impossible. We are not a state – we are not a people – that shies away from hard things.”
Then again, Gov. Quinn has spent more than a year trying to get lawmakers to do something about pensions. But it’s proved to be such a hard thing, they have shied away. And based on the reaction from legislators, Quinn’s speech did nothing to change that.
— Brian Mackey
Photo: Gov. Pat Quinn delivers his State of the State address in the Illinois House chamber. (digital composite by Chris Slaby)