CHICAGO – With his top priority of pension reform inked into law, Gov. Pat Quinn is preparing for a critical election-year State of the State speech this week, needing to persuade lawmakers and voters he has the leadership skills to keep running Illinois.
The annual address, set for Wednesday, is a chance for Quinn to lay out his goals and recap his accomplishments. He is sure to count pension reform – which he once said he was “put on Earth” to solve – as a signature achievement, but how much credit the Chicago Democrat can take is a matter for debate.
Quinn has won praise for keeping the state’s roughly $100 billion pension crisis in the public eye, despite the threat of reforms to the retirement benefits of state workers and unions, traditional Democratic allies who could be key to his re-election. At the same time, he’s been criticized for his more populist methods and not doing more to broker the deal that was passed in December by the Legislature and now faces legal challenges.
Other pension reform advocates say it’s fair to give Quinn a nod for his efforts, but some argue that he actually came late to the issue and acted only when he couldn’t afford not to as the state’s executive officer.
“It was driven by the fact that he had no place else to go,” said Ty Fahner, president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, which had warned of a state pension crisis for years. “We got a bill because we had no place to go.”
Until a few years ago, pension reform was far more on the radar of economists and business executives than legislators and the public. Lawmakers skipped or shorted payments to the state pension systems for years and created a growing shortfall. Despite dire consequences for the state’s budget and business climate, the General Assembly took years to act.
Fahner said it wasn’t until 2011 – two years after Quinn came into office – that the governor took the issue seriously. By that time, Illinois’ pension crisis was evolving into a national embarrassment and the state’s credit ratings were taking serious hits.
Quinn began speaking out about pension reform any chance he got, at times refusing to address other issues until the crisis was solved. He called lawmakers into special sessions, set deadlines, rolled out a social media campaign featuring a cartoon snake named “Squeezy” and tried to hold lawmakers’ paychecks until they came up with a solution. For months, he also refused to take his own paycheck.
Those moves led others to scrutinize Quinn’s effectiveness, a question the former consumer advocate and self-styled “outsider” has battled throughout his time in office. The special sessions were fruitless, the deadlines often ignored. The lawmakers’ paychecks were restored by a judicial order after Quinn irked lawmakers who said he had overstepped his boundaries.
Ultimately, lawmakers approved a landmark bill last month that’s estimated to close the huge shortfall over three decades by cutting benefits for most retirees and employees.
“Pat Quinn used the bully pulpit to keep the focus on that issue,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “He does get some credit.”
Quinn has been measured about publicly taking credit. He calls it a victory for Illinois and says credit should be shared with legislators, even praising one of his Republican gubernatorial challengers, state Sen. Bill Brady, who served on a reform panel and voted for the landmark bill.
Quinn told The Associated Press last month in an interview that the overhaul is his biggest achievement, at least from a fiscal standpoint, arguing that it gives his re-election a real boost. But his modest attempt to spread the credit could have a political underpinning, knowing that trying to take too much credit could upset workers and unions in the run-up to November.
He has hinted that on Wednesday, in addition to pension reform and the state’s new same-sex marriage law, he will tout worker friendly issues like raising Illinois’ minimum wage and a new capital construction program that could create employment.
“The No. 1 issue all the time is jobs, economic growth, opportunity, building the middle class, preserving the middle class, helping people get a fair shake in life,” he told reporters last week.
While the legal challenges may push the pension issue back to the Legislature, other political leaders are less shy about claiming credit for the recent reforms, including House Speaker Michael Madigan. Last year the powerful Democrat instituted a rarely used tactic, forcing piecemeal votes on pension issues to educate new legislators and test what worked. The final deal was worked out in his Chicago office.
“The bill would not have passed without me,” he said in a statement after the vote.
Others – including Brady, who is now challenging Quinn – say the governor should have been more involved in the details, like attending pension committee talks in person. Quinn left that to his budget director, who attended on his behalf.
“We asked [Quinn] to come to several meetings. He could have been helpful had he come,” said Brady. “The budget director wasn’t elected governor.”
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