CHICAGO – After keeping a relatively low public profile before the November election, Gov. Pat Quinn is out again, pushing his agenda for tackling Illinois' most pressing problems in the run up to the Legislature's veto session later this month.
He says he soon will announce details of a planned grass-roots campaign to promote an overhaul of the state's pension system, and he's set a Jan. 9 deadline for achieving reforms. Among the issues likely to arise in the two-week session in Springfield this month is whether lawmakers have enough votes to override his veto of a major gambling expansion bill.
Quinn sat down with The Associated Press this week to discuss his stance on the issues ahead, including his optimism for pension reform, the possibility of an agreement on a new gambling bill and the outlook for gay marriage in Illinois. He also touched on one of his favorite topics, Abraham Lincoln.
Below are edited excerpts of his remarks:
Lawmakers failed last spring to agree on a plan to address the state's underfunded pension system and a later special session on the topic also was unsuccessful. Quinn says one of the biggest hang-ups has been Republican opposition to shifting pension costs from the state to suburban and downstate schools for their own employees, which opponents say could lead to property tax hikes.
Q: How are you prioritizing the biggest issues?
A: "Pension reform is indispensable. I'm 63-years-old and I can say that my entire lifetime, Illinois has had a pension challenge, pension difficulties. It's been around for 70 years, it's been aggravated by recent governors ... That's how we got $90 billion plus in liability.
"We must come together in the next two months and solve the problem. We laid out a formula and structure in the spring ... The ingredients are there to put together a bipartisan solution.
"We're going to spend more money on pension payments in Illinois than we're going to spend on education ... That's a pretty bad signal to what we're doing for the future.
"There was always the specter of [the November election] behind the discussions in the spring, on both sides. I think this chance – that we have before us on Jan. 9 – doesn't have that specter of an immediate election in front of it."
Q: Have you softened your position on the need for a cost shift [to schools]?
A: "No. I'm for that. That's a principle of accountability. How you do it, we're open-minded to that, working with everybody on how that's done."
Lawmakers have twice approved a plan to expand gambling in Illinois, but neither has met the approval of Quinn, who vetoed the most recent bill proposing five new casinos, including one in Chicago. Lawmakers say they're working to secure votes to possibly override his decision this month, but Quinn says it's more likely he and gaming opponents can find common ground on a new plan that addresses his reservations.
Q: Do you still have the same objections that you did?
A: The override effort "is not going to succeed. That's all, in my opinion, eyewash.
"The current bill has severe shortcomings, especially in the area of regulation and ethics. We're not going to go in a bad direction. That would be just a terrible travesty for our state ... The current bill was way too lax. It allowed the city [of Chicago] pretty much to regulate itself on the gaming ... It had to be vetoed on that ground and [because] the money wasn't going to schools."
"I'm optimistic we can put something together by the 9th of January that can get the majority vote, both houses, and I can sign."
Quinn last year helped Illinois become the first state in the Midwest to approve civil unions when he signed the bill into law, and he said earlier this year that he supports marriage equality after President Barack Obama's endorsement of gay marriage. Proponents say they are again gauging support in the Legislature, after a majority of voters in four other states sided with them last week.
Q: Could you see [gay marriage] happening in Illinois?
A: "I'm probably a key to getting it passed from what I experienced with civil unions ... I don't know what the roll call is ... I think that will become law in Illinois, hopefully soon."
Earlier this year, Quinn used his amendatory veto power to convert a bill about ammunition sales into a proposed assault weapons ban, which drew criticism from gun advocates and lawmakers who claimed Quinn had overstepped his authority. It's a longshot that lawmakers will approve it.
Q: Is there support in the Legislature for that?
A: "The majority of Illinois citizens want a ban on assault weapons. There are some [politicians] – those who aspire to be governor – who are rather timid on that subject. I'm not. ... Do you want a governor who takes stands for the common good or do you want someone who avoids taking stands?
"You don't need a faint heart. I have a stout heart."
Quinn has ordered the closing of some prisons, including the super-maximum security prison in Tamms, but he's run into resistance from some lawmakers and unions at a time when prisons are overcrowded.
Q: How can you close prisons when there's overcrowding?
A: "Depends on what prison. Some prisons are specialized prisons. You don't mix men and women in prison. You don't have a supermax prison that almost every state in the union is closing down and maintain that for its own sake even if it's half empty, or two-thirds now empty. That's not smart.
"It costs far more to incarcerate somebody at Tamms, three times as much as another prison."
Quinn, an Abraham Lincoln history buff, is known for peppering the Illinois slogan – "Land of Lincoln" – into nearly every speech and quoting the 16th president extensively.
Q: Are you going to see the new "Lincoln" movie?
A: "I've already seen it ... It's an excellent movie.
"If you want to see how Democracy works, see that movie ... You will appreciate the battle to get pension reform if you see the movie and see how hard it was to abolish slavery and get that amendment for the people. And they went to great lengths to use the Democratic process properly."
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