Quick Hit Ashlee Rezin Wednesday February 6th, 2013, 7:58pm

Quinn's State Of The State Speech Misses The Mark On Pension Reform

Gov. Pat Quinn led today’s State of the State address by saying Illinois is “at a critical juncture.”

He renewed a call for banning military-style assault weapons, spoke in support of marriage equality legislation, moving voter registration online, and urged a 20 percent increase in the hourly minimum wage, to $10.

Quinn also boasted of workers’ compensation reform, clean water and infrastructure improvements, a Medicaid overhaul, veteran employment initiatives and Illinois becoming the fifth state in the Union to legalize driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Beginning promptly at noon, the address was made to a joint session of the legislature in Springfield and focused on Quinn’s successes during his tenure.

But at least two policy experts say more attention should’ve been placed on Illinois’ overwhelming public-employee pension deficit, a $97 billion debt that has burdened the state with the nation’s worst credit rating and threatens to consume funding for education and other services.

“I am disappointed because I don’t feel like what he talked about is going to change the direction of Illinois,” said Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy for the Illinois Policy Institute. “He didn’t talk about what really mattered, which is in-depth pension reform, and how to increase prosperity in Illinois to make us a more competitive state.”

“Critically, right now we’ve got a state that’s bankrupt; for topical issues to dominate his speech today at the expense of people’s jobs, people’s pensions and people’s prosperity, well I think that’s really sad,” he said.

Touting that “hard is not impossible,” Quinn spoke in support of SB 1, Senate President’ John Cullerton’s legislation aimed at stabilizing Illinois’ pension system.

Calling SB 1 “the best vehicle to get the job done,” Quinn said legislators “cannot allow our economic recovery to be held hostage by the pension crisis.”

To meet the state’s pension obligations, Cullerton’s legislation combines two proposals which include lower benefits, higher payments by employees, a reduction in cost of living adjustments and calls for workers to opt for either bigger contributions or guaranteed health benefits upon retirement.

“It’s not just a pension crisis in Illinois, the entire state is in dire fiscal crisis,” said Brian Gaines, professor at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois

“Same-sex marriage and gun control are hard issues to not talk about right now, and they’re very emotionally charged issues, but they’re not in any way related to the state’s terrible financial circumstances,” he said. “I don’t want to say those topics are unimportant, but it doesn’t get to the key problem which is that, with our combination of inequitable revenue, too much spending, and a huge a debt, we are the worst state in the country in fiscal terms.”

In a statement following Quinn’s address, Senate President John Cullerton said solving the state’s pension crisis is the legislation’s “critical task.”

“As we look forward to our next fiscal year it is clear that our state budget is turning into a plan that funds pension benefits rather than essential services, including education and human services,” he said in a statement.

We Are One Illinois, a coalition of unions and their supporters, is also unhappy with Quinn's speech and stance on pensions today. According to a statement from the group, the sentiments of Cullerton and Quinn do a disservice to achieving an amenable plan on pension reform:

Governor Pat Quinn presented a false choice today between funding pensions or funding vital services, like education and public safety. We present a different choice. Our plan would generate billions in revenue, share in the sacrifice, and should not be overlooked. Public workers and retirees alone cannot solve decades of the state's pension under-funding.

It would be irresponsible for the state to walk away from the pension debt owed for past services performed by employees. Our Illinois keeps its promises to those workers and retirees who taught our children, protected our families, and paid their fair share for a secure future, even as the state failed to generate sufficient revenue to do so.

We are ready to be part of the solution, and we look to renew this commitment at our summit.

Quinn’s State of the State address also called for a law that would prohibit lawmakers from voting on issues where they have a conflict of interest. He also urged legislators to pass a law to allow voters to participate in primary elections without having to publicly declare their party affiliation.

Quinn, elected in 2010 after succeeding the now-imprisoned Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich in 2009, faces a primary election that's nearly 14 months away. Two high-profile members of his own party, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, may challenge Quinn for the nomination.

“Together, we can guide Illinois safely through this pension challenge that we face,” said Quinn at the conclusion of his address. “And we can continue to make our Illinois a reality; an Illinois whose people and businesses prosper, an Illinois which lives up to its proud history and which would make Abraham Lincoln himself proud, an Illinois in which the will of the people is the law of the land.”

Image: AP Photo/Seth Perlman

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