CHICAGO – Gov. Pat Quinn faces big expectations over how he'll address Illinois' disastrous finances when he delivers his State of the State speech this week, but he's hinting he'll also spend time reminding the public how the state's image has been cleaned up under his watch.
The annual speech is expected to set the tone for the year, touching on broad themes ahead of a later budget address on the nitty-gritty of running government. But this is the governor's best chance to boast of accomplishments, and Quinn has yet to succeed at forging compromise on pension reform and other issues as he did with helping restore the state's reputation after his two predecessors went off to prison.
Focusing on ethics more than finances could be tricky for Quinn, however. Illinois is staring down the worst pension problem in the nation, with nearly $100 billion in unfunded liability, and he's on the spot to show progress as Republicans and some fellow Democrats begin eyeing his seat in next year's governor's race.
"What I'd like to hear from him is real conviction to resolve serious financial problems," said Rep. Barbara Wheeler, a Republican from Crystal Lake and one of the newcomers in the Legislature. "What I'm afraid is going to happen is more lip service toward the problem and more accolades toward what is perceived as successes within the state."
When asked last week, Quinn wouldn't reveal exactly what he's going to say in his first major speech of the year on Wednesday. But he told reporters it's important to remember how scandal-free the state has been since 2009 when he was tapped as lieutenant governor to lead Illinois after the embarrassing corruption scandal that engulfed former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
"We had a very difficult time four years ago," Quinn said on the day another former governor, George Ryan, was released from prison after serving more than five years for corruption. "My job was to straighten things out in Illinois, in every which way... I worked on that every single day the last four years. I'll continue to do that as long as I have a breath."
The Chicago Democrat said he'd delve into the state's finances — the pension crisis, cash-strapped budget and billions in unpaid bills — but the four-year anniversary also was important to mark during the speech. His spokeswoman Brooke Anderson added that the speech would be a "brutally honest assessment" of where the state is.
"We've made great progress to restore integrity, prosperity. We've turned things around, but we're not to our destination yet," she said.
Lawmakers said they expect Quinn to spend time on gun control, gay marriage and possibly immigration. Some observers say too much focus on ethics might reflect that Quinn's term hasn't produced enough landmark successes that are easy to cite.
"While he has kept the governor's office free of corruption, as far as anyone knows, that's not a huge accomplishment in the grand scheme of things," said Christopher Mooney, a University of Illinois at Springfield political science professor. "It might look like that relative to his two predecessors, but most governors, most of the time, even in Illinois, are not convicted of crimes and thrown into prison."
At the same time, reminding people of his reputation for honesty and earnestness is likely to be a key part of Quinn's re-election bid.
Several Republicans are mulling runs, including Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, who Quinn defeated in 2010 and who sent a note to supporters Friday saying he was laying the groundwork for another challenge. Quinn also could face a tough primary if former White House chief of staff Bill Daley or Attorney General Lisa Madigan decide to challenge him.
Last year, Quinn's 34-minute speech didn't delve into state finances, but touched on tougher ethics laws, legalized civil unions and lowered statewide unemployment. However, since then Quinn has made pensions almost his sole focus, and some say underplaying it now in his speech would be a mistake.
"He has to talk about pensions and the budget. Other issues are important, but they've almost become a side show," said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "I really want to hear a Winston Churchill speech. I want to hear a leader stand up and tell me things I don't want to hear about the tough things ahead. We shouldn't sugar coat that."
Lawmakers finished a lame-duck session last month without even calling for a vote on proposed pension legislation, and the fallout has only gotten worse. Standard & Poor's recently downgraded Illinois' credit rating because of the lack of action, and last week Quinn delayed borrowing $500 million for construction projects because the downgrade left the bond market "unsettled."
Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont said Wednesday's speech could be a chance for Quinn to turn the momentum toward a solution on the pension issue.
"I'd like to see the governor be squarely behind a plan and really advocate for it," she said. "It would be helpful if he'd be clear and have it move forward."
But fellow Democrats lay the blame elsewhere. Sen. Patricia Van Pelt, a first-term Chicago Democrat, said Quinn has been approaching the problem as he should, and solving it is up to the Legislature.
"I expect to hear pensions, pensions, pensions," she said of his speech. "He's been saying the right things. I want everyone to get on board."
Sophia Tareen can be reached at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen