SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Pat Quinn boosted his populist credentials Wednesday as he looks toward a 2014 re-election bid, calling for tougher conflict-of-interest controls on lawmakers, increasing the minimum wage to $10 per hour and banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition feeders.
In the annual State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly, Quinn said state law should prohibit lawmakers from voting on issues where they have a conflict of interest. He urged the Legislature to impose the same kind of ethics requirements on itself that it previously approved for judges and administration officials in a state that has seen its past two governors jailed on corruption charges.
But lawmakers weren’t keen on what’s perceived as a direct challenge to the Legislature’s authority, and even government watchdogs pointed out it’s a thorny issue that isn’t as clear cut as it seems.
Quinn made only scattered references to the state’s most pressing problem – a stifling public-employee pension deficit, but the squeeze it puts on other government spending was an undercurrent throughout the governor’s fifth State of the State address. Quinn pointedly named Senate President John Cullerton’s latest legislation that includes a fallback plan if the first is declared unconstitutional as “the best vehicle to get the job done.”
“Do we want, in the years to come, a prosperous Illinois where working people continue to have good jobs, where businesses thrive, and where all our children have a world-class education?” Quinn asked. “Or do we want to stop the progress and watch our economic recovery stall?”
Elevated to the job after his former running mate, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was impeached and removed from office in 2009 and elected to a full term the next year, Quinn will face not only stiff Republican competition but a possible primary challenge from one or more high-profile Democrats next spring. GOP lawmakers were keenly aware of the upcoming political season.
“Clearly it was a campaign speech for him,” said Bloomington Sen. Bill Brady, the 2010 GOP nominee who nearly unseated Quinn and is considering another run next year. “He hit some of the right sound bites, but he didn’t address some of the issues that are at the forefront.”
Quinn noted the ban on what he called “conflict of interest voting” is an idea he first broached nearly 40 years ago, when more than 600,000 voters signed a petition supporting it. It’s something more than half the states have already adopted. Quinn argued that the courts and executive branch are “regulated all over” but that a new law should be approved governing the ethical conduct of legislators.
“With this reform, we can keep moving toward a state government that always puts the people first, and a government that tackles the tough issues, no matter how hard,” Quinn said.
Rikeesha Phelon, a spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, questioned whether the plan would be redundant. State ethics law addresses conflicts but makes recusal from potentially troublesome votes voluntary.
Past efforts have failed, including a proposal last year by Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale, another Republican preparing a gubernatorial run, said David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. Such a law could bar a lawmaker working in the insurance industry from lending her wisdom to insurance legislation, he said. And recusal would mean that lawmaker’s constituents lose a vote on sometimes crucial matters.
“It’s a thorny issue,” Morrison said. “It’s a topic that needs to be looked at, but it’s got to be looked at carefully.”
U.S. Rep. Aaron Shock, a Republican from Peoria viewed as a potential gubernatorial candidate, issued a statement arguing Quinn’s speech lacked “leadership and boldness” necessary to fix the state’s problem. Schock learned Wednesday the U.S. House Ethics Committee plans to investigate his campaign fundraising.
Intra-party challenges to Quinn could come from Democrats Lisa Madigan, the popular state attorney general, and Bill Daley, the former Chicago mayor’s brother and former White House chief of staff. Madigan said Wednesday she has not decided whether to run. Daley did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.
Quinn also endorsed the open primary, an election reform proposal that has gotten little traction previously. It would allow voters to participate in primary elections without having to publicly declare which party’s ballot they’re taking.
Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, issued a statement praising Quinn’s endorsement of his legislation aimed at tackling the $96 billion pension problem.
“It is time that we put aside partisanship and entrenched opinions in pursuit of bigger and broader goals – doing the right thing for the future of this state,” Cullerton said.
Cullerton’s legislation incorporates a compromise House plan that failed in early January. It requires higher contributions by employees to their retirement plans and offers less-generous post-career benefits. Cullerton tagged onto it his plan that he believes would survive a court challenge offering retirees a choice between larger annual benefit increases or health insurance.
Quinn’s office noted Cullerton’s inclusion of a plan by the House pension leader, Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook. But Nekritz has introduced a different plan and said she’s not sold on all of Cullerton’s ideas without more information.
Contact John O’Connor at https://www.twitter.com/apoconnor.
Associated Press writers Sara Burnett in Chicago and Regina Garcia Cano contributed to this report.