Quinn’s speech aims to make case for re-election
With two potential heavyweight Democratic primary contenders threatening to seek his title, it probably should have come as no surprise Wednesday that Gov. Pat Quinn turned his annual State of the State address into a thinly veiled re-election campaign speech.
What may come as more of a surprise — given the governor’s low approval ratings — is that he actually can make a fairly strong case for himself when all the accomplishments of his first four years in office are enumerated.
Although often derided for his ability to get things done in Springfield, the fact is that a lot of important and difficult legislation has been approved by the General Assembly and signed into law under Quinn, much of it with mixed popularity.
The continued perception of Quinn’s impotence as a leader traces back to the two thorny and interrelated problems he hasn’t been able to solve. I’m referring to the fact that Illinois is still broke and that no solution has been found for the biggest underlying cause — the cost of funding the state pension systems for government workers.
Obviously, those are pretty major issues that tend to overshadow everything else and open the door for Quinn’s possible Democratic challengers, led by Attorney General Lisa Madigan and former White House Chief of Staff William Daley.
But let’s look at some of the achievements Quinn highlighted in Wednesday’s speech — and some that he didn’t.
◆ Created and funded a long-sought public works program, Illinois Jobs Now, for rebuilding the state’s infrastructure.
◆ Overhauled the state’s Medicaid program to keep it from going broke.
◆ Changed the workers compensation program to save businesses millions of dollars in insurance premiums.
◆ Legalized civil unions for gays and lesbians.
◆ Established temporary driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
◆ Approved a bipartisan education-reform package with benchmarks for teacher evaluations.
◆ Ethics reforms including establishing voter recall for Illinois governors, limits on campaign contributions and elimination of the scandal-plagued legislative scholarship program.
◆ Reduced pension benefits for new state employees.
◆ Closed 54 state facilities to save money over opposition from unions and local politicians of both parties.
I’m not saying Quinn was the moving force behind each of these measures, but all of it would have been hard to do without him.
In his speech to lawmakers, Quinn was careful to couch any accomplishments in terms of “we,” not “I.”
For obvious reasons, Quinn made no mention of one of his biggest achievements as governor: passage of a record state income tax increase. That’s still a pretty touchy subject, although it’s hard to imagine where the state would be without that revenue — and likewise hard to imagine how Quinn and lawmakers will be able to allow the “temporary” increase to expire.
Quinn also is the governor who abolished the death penalty in Illinois, and who, so far at least, has blocked a massive casino gambling expansion (after allowing video poker to be used to fund his public works program.)
That’s not a bad track record, at least from a progressive Democrat’s point of view, but please don’t mistake this column for an endorsement of Quinn. Sometimes it’s just fun to argue a contrarian point of view.
Unless the governor can find a way to shepherd a pension reform bill through the Legislature, it’s probably going to be moot anyhow.
As Quinn himself made clear again Wednesday, the state’s future is riding on it, because as things stand now, pension costs are threatening both the state’s economy and its ability to finance public education.
That will also continue to be the basis on how Quinn’s effectiveness as governor is judged.
One of the theme’s of Quinn’s speech was that “hard is not impossible” — meaning that it will be hard to pass pension legislation but not impossible, as proved by what he and lawmakers have done together over the past four years.
So, too, it will be hard for Pat Quinn to get re-elected given his current low standing with the electorate, but if he can fix the pension problem and effectively argue his case, it’s still possible.