McHenry County’s representatives in Springfield wanted to hear Gov. Pat Quinn acknowledge a fiscal crisis and call lawmakers to action in his State of the State address Wednesday.
Most said they were left wanting after a 40-minute speech that made scattered references to the state’s unfunded pension liability of at least $96 billion and no reference to the state’s $9 billion in unpaid bills.
State Reps. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, and Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, said Quinn’s address sounded more like a kickoff of his 2014 re-election campaign than a serious accounting of the state’s dire financial situation.
“I wanted to hear from Gov. Quinn that we’re in a state of fiscal emergency. The discussion today was just a litany of special-interest, liberal programs he wants to pursue, and that’s very disappointing. The house is on fire,” McSweeney said.
Quinn did not dedicate any one portion of his address to the state’s finances as he did with subjects such as jobs, hiring of veterans, health care, education and public safety. His first statement about the pension crisis – the word “pension” appeared eight times in his address – did warn that the issue, if left unchecked, could derail the state’s economic recovery.
“This is a choice about whether we’ll make the tough decisions necessary to balance our budget by reforming our public pension systems, or whether we will let our jobs, our safety and our schools be squeezed out by skyrocketing pension costs. We have a tall task ahead of us. This is no small issue. And doing what’s hard isn’t always what’s popular at the moment. But we must remember that hard is not impossible,” Quinn said.
Illinois’ credit rating, now the worst of all 50 states, has in recent months been downgraded by two of the three major rating agencies and put on a negative outlook by the third. All three have cited legislative inaction on the pension crisis as the reason.
Democratic Rep. Jack Franks called the address a waste of time that should have been folded into the budget address that Quinn will give lawmakers in about three weeks.
“I was hoping that he would say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the state of the state is in peril, and needs to be fixed ... We have to fix this and that’s all we should be focusing on – fixing the pensions and balancing our budget. Nothing else matters. Nothing else matters, because if we don’t fix this, nothing’s left,” Franks said.
Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, said this year’s address had “much of the same rhetoric that it does each year,” without an action plan that the state desperately needs.
“I’m disappointed in the direction the state has taken over the last decade, disappointed in the lack of leadership that should be coming from the governor’s office, and I’m disappointed at how those two things combined have severely hurt our businesses and citizens,” Althoff said.
Quinn spent more time on issues such as green energy, infrastructure, adding manufacturing jobs and clean water. He pushed lawmakers to approve gay marriage, raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour and ban semiautomatic assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.
While Rep. Barbara Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake, said she was pleased that Quinn “sees the reality of our broken fiscal house,” she was not at all pleased with the call to raise the minimum wage – now $8.25 an hour – by more than 20 percent. She pointed out that just two years ago Democratic lawmakers raised the income tax on individuals and businesses.
“We are in a stagnant economy and leaders are proposing increasing the state’s minimum wage to $10 an hour. How are employers and small businesses supposed to pay for this?” Wheeler said.
The 2011 tax increase – 67 percent on individuals and 46 percent on businesses – was meant to help state government pay down its backlog of bills. But almost all of the increased revenue has been swallowed by the state’s ballooning public pension obligations. The state now owes more in unpaid bills than it did at the time of the tax increase.
Quinn put his most substantial talk on pensions near the end of his address, urging lawmakers to get behind a reform bill submitted by Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago.
Cullerton’s bill, Senate Bill 1, comes in two parts. The first part caps pensionable salary, suspends and reduces annual cost-of-living increases and requires increased contributions from public employees. The second part, to be used if any of the first part is deemed unconstitutional, requires public employees to either reduce and delay their eligibility for cost-of-living increases or forgo certain health care benefits and future increases in pensionable income.
Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, said that Quinn and the Democratic Party, which has veto-proof majorities in both houses, have no excuse not to immediately enact pension reform. He pointed out that the first bill making its way through the newly sworn General Assembly is a spending bill to appropriate $2 billion more for infrastructure and mental health and child welfare services.
“[Quinn] said that he was put on this Earth to fix the pensions. He now has one of the largest majorities in Illinois history. The Democrats have supermajorities in both houses and can pass legislation without a single Republican vote. They have absolutely no excuse not to pass comprehensive pension reform immediately. If it doesn’t happen, it means that they don’t want it to happen,” Duffy said.
On the Net
You can read and watch Gov. Pat Quinn’s State of the State address at www.illinois.gov.