SPRINGFIELD -- Gov. Pat Quinn will deliver his State of the State speech Wednesday, an address expected to focus on past accomplishments and lay out an agenda for job growth and economic development in Illinois.
Gov. Pat Quinn will deliver his State of the State speech Wednesday, an address expected to focus on past accomplishments and lay out an agenda for job growth and economic development in Illinois.
But with Illinois’ financial problems dominating the political landscape, some lawmakers are already looking ahead to Quinn’s budget speech, which will be delivered in another month.
“I would think this is less important than the budget speech,’ said Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, the Senate Republicans’ point man on the budget. “If you really want to focus on jobs, you have to get spending under control.”
Administration officials said Wednesday’s speech will be about “jobs, jobs, jobs.”
“Jobs and economic growth are the number one issue in Illinois,” said Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson.
That doesn’t mean Quinn will ignore the state’s financial problems. He could touch on issues like the need for pension changes and Medicaid reform, while leaving details of those initiatives for the budget speech.
Quinn has repeatedly telegraphed his intention to push for pension changes. He wants to shift the financial burden of paying for university and downstate teachers pensions to universities and local school districts. His argument is that teachers and university employees are not state employees, so it shouldn’t be solely the state’s responsibility to finance their pensions.
At an appearance at Elmhurst College last week, House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, sent a strong signal that he is ready to embrace Quinn’s argument.
“All the money that goes into (downstate teacher and university pensions) comes from the state of Illinois,” Madigan said. “Over one half of our obligation to pensions is for people who never worked for the state of Illinois.”
Controlling the skyrocketing cost of Medicaid has long been a rallying cry for Republican lawmakers, who believe reforms passed a year ago don’t go nearly far enough. But Democrats, including Quinn, also are increasingly saying something needs to be done.
“The biggest thing facing us is not pensions, it’s Medicaid, far and away,” said Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, a budget expert for House Democrats.
Calling for changes to the state’s business tax code could also be part of the speech, with details to follow. Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, is working on revisions that could change what types of tax incentives the state awards and who receives them.
Quinn is unlikely to propose programs that cost the state even more money. That’s not a problem for Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.
“I’m not a big believer in the tax-break strategy,” Whitley said.
A better approach, he suggested, is to redirect state resources to where they will help boost the economy, such as putting money into promoting tourism and conventions or promoting international business opportunities.
“The state of Illinois can be an enabler,” Whitley said. “I’d like to see more investment in trade fairs, industry fairs and conventions. Some spending is an investment in growth. That’s where I would want to see the state spend more wisely.”
Send responsible message
Murphy said Quinn needs to send a message that the state is able to tackle its financial problems, including Medicaid and pension reform.
“If you can start to do that, you can see the time when the tax increase is going down and you have something to market to the job creators,” he said. “We’re still running a deficit so the confidence the tax increase will go away is nil.”
State of the State speeches also give governors a chance to recount their achievements from the previous year. Quinn is expected to do the same, even though many lawmakers believe the governor was not an active participant through much of last year’s session.
Mautino said Quinn should “replay some of the good things that have happened.” That includes education reforms and changes in Illinois’ workers compensation and unemployment insurance systems.
“Those were big ticket items that were dealt with,” Mautino said.
And Quinn can claim credit for improved state finances, he said.
“We paid down $3.5 billion in bills,” Mautino said. “Pension payments were made. Two of the three bond rating agencies put us at ‘stable.’ Had we not done the revenue side, it would have been much, much worse.”
“The governor can always claim those accomplishments. Who is going to say no?” said Chris Mooney, political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Mooney called the State of the State speech “the biggest set-piece of the governor in the legislative process. It sets the agenda for us.”
The key, though, is the governor.
“If you’ve got a strong agenda, you know what you want to do and you have a good strategy in how to pursue that in the legislative process,” Mooney said. “He’s never had a focused agenda.”
Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527.