Searching for Surprises in Quinn’s Budget Speech

sealThere were few surprises Wednesday in Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget address to the Illinois General Assembly. He called it a “difficult” proposal, with steep cuts in spending on education. So we challenged Statehouse reporter Brian Mackey to find seven things that were surprising about the governor’s speech.

As the governor and lawmakers begin working on next year’s budget, pretty much everyone knew what Quinn was going to make the focus of his speech.

QUINN: “It won’t surprise you that the hard work starts with public pension reform.”

No surprises there. After the speech, Republicans, like Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, were unimpressed:

BRADY: “For him to shirk his responsibilities and failures on the backs of classroom spending, property taxes and tuition, I think is dead on arrival.”

The Republican who lost to Quinn in 2010 unhappy with the Democratic governor’s speech? No surprises there, either. But, that’s not what this story is about. So here goes …

Surprise number one: the self-proclaimed “progressive” Quinn favorably cited a staunch Republican columnist to bolster his credibility. He was talking about signing a law in 2010 that slashed pension benefits for new state employees.

QUINN: “National conservative columnist George Will called that law an ‘earthquake,’ a ‘seismic event.'”

But while savings from that change will be significant, they won’t show up for decades, when today’s new workers reach retirement age. And Illinois still faces a nearly $100 billion-deficit in the money it’ll have to spend on pensions. Quinn has proposed steep cuts in education — about $400 million dollars — which he attributes directly to having to spend more on pensions. So, surprise number two, Quinn is trying a new tack to spur lawmakers to action: browbeating.

QUINN: “If I could issue an executive order to resolve the pension crisis, I would. And I would have done it a long time ago. But democracy requires action by the executive branch and the legislative branch. It’s time for you to legislate.”

Surprisingly (number three), House Republican Leader Tom Cross seemed to welcome the governor’s hectoring tone.

CROSS: “And I’m not being critical of it, because I think we needed to hear that from somebody. And so I don’t think it’s all bad. But I just think that tone was different than what we’re used to from someone standing up there giving that speech.”

Republicans have repeatedly criticized Quinn generally for not doing enough on pensions, and in particular for not laying out exactly what he wants to see in legislation. Which brings us to surprise number four: Quinn actually giving some specifics, like about the three-percent cost-of-living increase retirees get every year.

QUINN: “That’s unsustainable for taxpayers. For those with higher pensions, the cost-of-living adjustment should be suspended until the entire pension system achieves better balance.”

Quinn also says if the legislature approves an expansion of gambling — like a proposal for new casinos in Chicagoland, Rockford, and Danville — that money should be dedicated for education, which could include teachers’ pensions. There are still a lot of open questions about what else Quinn wants to see in a pension proposal, but — surprise number five — Republican Treasurer Dan Rutherford says that’s OK, at least in a major speech.

RUTHERFORD: “I can understand maybe laying the specifics out in the public arena is not the best way to get some production done.”

But he says it’s a different matter when Quinn is in private meetings with legislative leaders.

RUTHERFORD: “I would hope that at least when you’ve got that closed door, you’re laying out here, ‘This is absolutely what I’m for, and this is absolutely what I’m against, and let’s put together a comprehensive package.'”

And speaking of getting specific about pensions proposals — surprise number six: House Speaker Michael Madigan making news. The Speaker rarely speaks to the media, and this was the first time he publicly addressed the latest mainstream pension legislation. It would put teachers and university workers hired after 2014 into a new hybrid, public-private retirement program. Madigan was critical in an interview with the public TV program Illinois Lawmakers, saying that plan doesn’t end the practice of the state paying the employer’s share of pension costs for teachers and university workers.

MADIGAN: “They ought be paid for by the local employer, the people that issue the paycheck. It’s a free lunch, and it ought to end, and we ought to respond to the governor’s challenge and do something significant, not insignificant.”

That the longtime speaker, who has a reputation for ruling state government, is suggesting the legislature take its cues from the governor is surprise number seven.

That said, the governor’s budget proposal would spend at least $500 million more dollars than a spending cap already approved by the Illinois House and Senate. Though many lawmakers stopped short of saying Quinn’s proposal is dead on arrival, they suggested it could face a tough road.

Gov. Quinn having a hard time getting something into law? Nothing surprising about that.

— Brian Mackey

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