Quinn’s State of State address gets cool reception from legislators
BY DAVE McKINNEY AND ANDREW MALONEY Sun-Times Staff Reporters February 1, 2012 12:30PM
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn delivers his State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly in the House chambers at the Illinois State Capitol Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012 in Springfield, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Updated: March 3, 2012 11:35AM
SPRINGFIELD — Touting a jobs platform, Gov. Pat Quinn pushed modest tax relief, Medicaid and pension reforms, more college grant spending and an end to the state’s natural gas tax in a State of the State speech Wednesday overshadowed by Illinois’ gloomy financial condition.
“We all know that the economic storm is far from over,” Quinn told a joint session of the General Assembly. “While we have downsized Illinois government more than ever before, we continue to face very difficult decisions to restore financial stability to our state.”
In his second State of the State speech, the governor facing low approval ratings laid out an array of feel-good ideas whose shelf life will be dictated entirely by the harsh reality of Illinois’ nearly empty treasury and a state Legislature more focused upon the March primaries.
Republicans were quick to jump on what they said was a $500 million assortment of spending expansions, deriding it as “Blagojevich lite.” And, the two top Democratic legislative leaders who should be in Quinn’s corner, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), either stood silent or offered only a tepid defense of the governor’s speech.
The speech comes as Quinn enters the mid-point of his first elected term as governor, bogged down by a worsening state fiscal picture that the 2011 income tax hike that he pushed through — and that drew no mention Wednesday — has done little to improve.
“We must always remember that strong economic growth is essential to resolving our fiscal challenges,” the governor said. “Cuts alone will not get us to a better budget. We must build and grow our Illinois economy like never before to keep Illinois moving forward.”
Chief among the goodies Quinn proposed was ending the state’s natural gas utility tax, a revenue source that brings the state $164 million annually that he called an “unfair, regressive tax.”
“By abolishing it entirely, we can provide targeted tax relief to both consumers and businesses,” Quinn said of the natural-gas tax.
Quinn proposed a $130 million tax credit for parents with children, a plan he said could deliver $100 in tax savings to a family of four. The proposal, which Republicans valued at as much as $160 million, drew silence from lawmakers in the audience as the governor laid it out.
“This targeted tax relief will stimulate consumer demand, which is 70 percent of our economy,” he said. “And it will create jobs for our local merchants.”
The governor also pushed a tax credit – valued at up to $10 million -- for businesses to cut their state income tax burden by up to $5,000 for each veteran they hire. That credit now stands at $1,200 per veteran.
On education, the governor called for requiring high school students to stay in school until they are 18, as President Barack Obama proposed, and boosting spending on the perennially cash-strapped Monetary Assistance Program that provides grants of up to $4,968 to low-income college students.
“While nearly 150,000 Illinois students received state MAP scholarships last year to attend college, just as many qualified applicants were denied because of lack of funding,” Quinn said, urging lawmakers to approve “significant investment in more state MAP scholarships.”
The governor also hinted at plans for a new construction program that would focus on schools and clean-water initiatives, including fixing aging water mains and waste-treatment plants. Quinn didn’t divulge the size of the plan or how it would be paid for.
Quinn paid only brief attention to the two largest fiscal elephants in the room: sharply escalating health-care costs for the poor and retirement benefits for government workers.
Earlier this week, the Civic Federation said those two spending pressures would be the main cause behind the state’s stack of unpaid bills quadrupling to more than $34.8 billion in four years — more than the state takes in now through its existing state and federal revenue streams.
“Suffice it to say, we must have Medicaid reform and public pension reform in the coming year,” the governor said.
With all of those ideas, Quinn steered clear of offering up many financial specifics, which still could emerge when the governor delivers a follow-up budget address on Feb. 22.
But that failure to lay out a clear roadmap to reel in Medicaid and pension spending stoked Republican criticism after the governor’s speech.
“If you listen to it, you would think everything was great here. There was barely a passing reference to the enormous fiscal problems that we’re experiencing,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), noting there were “two lines, at most, about pensions and Medicaid.”
She and her legislative counterpart, House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego), estimated Quinn’s new initiatives would cost $500 million at a time the state has no money. Quinn’s budget office outlined only $304 million in expenses.
“I felt like I was listening to a game of fantasy government,” Cross said. “It’s not real. It really isn’t real. And you want the CEO of the state, who’s been here for three years — three years — to get it, and he didn’t demonstrate that today.”
State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, a Republican and 2006 gubernatorial opponent of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, likened Quinn’s initiatives to those of his defrocked, one-time running mate.
“The programs being proposed, it was almost like Blagojevich-lite,” Topinka said. “He did the same thing. You’d have all these programs, and there was never any money to back them up.”
The Republicans’ thumbs-down reaction to Quinn’s speech didn’t get much rebuttal from the two Democratic legislative leaders, Madigan and Cullerton. Madigan avoided reporters afterwards, and Cullerton’s defense of Quinn came in a lukewarm statement released by his office.
“I commend the governor for highlighting the many accomplishments that we have made over the last few years. As he advances new initiatives to create jobs and improve the economy, I look forward to hearing how we can fund these important priorities within a balanced budget,” Cullerton said.
Shortly before the speech, the governor faced outright hostility from a member of his own party, who condemned Quinn on the House floor for his slow response in rooting out widespread corruption within the state child-welfare agency, the Department of Children and Family Services.
Twenty minutes before the governor was scheduled to appear in the House chambers, Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) stood and ripped the governor for not firing former DCFS director Erwin McEwen last May when it was apparent McEwen was not cooperating with an inspector general probe of contract fraud and apparent ghost-payrolling in the agency. McEwen left his job last September
“I don’t know why the governor didn’t tell the General Assembly the truth,” Franks yelled to his colleagues in a highly unusual breach of speech-day protocol. “And I want to know why the governor tried to sweep under the rug corruption within his administration.”
Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson declined to comment on the angry criticism from Franks, who helped lead a hearing last week on the DCFS scandal that centered on the contractor, Diversified Behavioral Comprehensive Care, and its head, George Smith.
“We’re focused on the State of the State right now,” Anderson said.