Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s “State of the State” speech Wednesday afternoon zeroed in on job creation, a new early childhood education initiative and efforts to boost small businesses and rebuild the middle class, including a renewed push to raise the state's minimum wage. Progress Illinois takes a look at some of the highlights from the speech.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s “State of the State” speech Wednesday afternoon zeroed in on job creation, a new early childhood education initiative and efforts to boost small businesses and rebuild the middle class, including a renewed push to raise the state's minimum wage.
The initiatives are part of what Quinn called "a five-year blueprint for jobs and economic growth in Illinois" that includes a focus on education and fairness.
During his approximately 40-minute speech in front of the Illinois General Assembly, the Democratic governor skipped details about his plan to attack the state's upcoming fiscal challenges as well as his thoughts on extending the temporary income tax increase. Quinn, who is facing a re-election battle this year, is set to discuss the state's finances in more detail during his February 19 budget address.
Quinn did, however, tout a number of his big achievements in 2013, including signing Illinois' historic marriage equality legislation and the controversial statewide pension reform law, which he said was the “tallest task of all.”
"It was hard. It was painful. And it took political courage," Quinn said to lawmakers who voted for the pension overhaul in December. "But together we got the job done. Today, we can tell the people of Illinois we stopped the bleeding. We turned the corner. And Illinois is making a comeback."
The pension reform measure, which doesn't take effect until June 1, is facing a legal challenge by the We Are One Illinois coalition of labor unions based on its constitutionality.
In a statement following Quinn’s address, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) said it stands in support of the coalition's lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday.
“There are many ways to solve the state’s economic problems, but these legislators insist on doing it on the backs of its workers by ignoring the pension heist and not taking into consideration the consequences to our communities,” said CTU President Karen Lewis. “They’re destroying the morale of the people who are actually doing the work and threatening the security of those who have already served. We call on the governor to end this pension heist.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel lauded the governor's speech, but also made note of what he thought was unfinished business — municipal pension funds.
“From investing in early childhood education to preparing our workforce for the jobs of the 21st century and raising the minimum wage, Governor Quinn has laid out a vision for the State that will set us on a path to success and is a recommitment to the city’s pioneering education programs College to Careers, five STEM high schools and universal kindergarten that educate and train Chicago’s next generation for the jobs of tomorrow," said Emanuel. "But in order to right our financial situation and secure our future, we must address the municipal pension issue. As the Governor said, pension reform “was hard, it took political courage. But together, we got the job done,” and I look forward to working with the Governor and the legislature to bring pension reform to Chicago so our workers and taxpayers have the security and certainty they deserve.”
Notably, Quinn took an optimistic tone throughout the speech, saying on multiple occasions that "Illinois is making a comeback," and adding that the "economic recovery is strengthening every day."
Christopher Mooney, director of the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs, said Quinn's overall positive take on the current picture of Illinois wasn't surprising.
"It's pretty typical for a State of the State speech, or a State of the Union speech, in an election, and even in non-election years," Mooney said. "State of the State is a misnomer. It's almost never going to happen that a governor or president is going to come out and say that the state of the union is terrible, unless it's their first term ... then they do it sometimes because it sets the bar low."
Quinn, who was elected in 2010 after succeeding the now-imprisoned Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich in 2009, faces a primary election in March against Democratic challenger Tio Hardiman, a long-time anti-violence activist in Chicago. The four candidates running in the Republican gubernatorial primary include state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, venture capitalist Bruce Rauner and State Sens. Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady, who lost to Quinn in the 2010 governor's race. All five of the candidates were in attendance for the address.
During his speech, Quinn said he wants to see Illinois' minimum wage increased to at least $10 an hour, up from the current $8.25.
"Our minimum wage workers are doing hard work. They're putting in long hours, yet in too many instances they are living in poverty," Quinn stressed. "That's not right. That's not an Illinois value. That's not a fair shake. This is all about dignity and decency."
Quinn first made the push for a $10 state minimum wage during his 2013 State of the State address, although it failed to gain traction in Springfield. This time around, the minimum wage has turned into a hot topic in the governor's race. President Barack Obama also renewed his push for a federal minimum wage increase during his State of the Union address Tuesday night. During his speech, Obama told state and local lawmakers that Americans would support them if they approve their own minimum wage hike before action is taken at the federal level.
But many business interests in Illinois are not on board with increasing the minimum wage, citing concerns that it would be a "job killer."
"Raising the minimum wage in Illinois would be wholly irresponsible and would force retailers to make cuts which will keep many people, especially those in the 16-24 age range, out of work," Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said in a statement. "The minimum wage is a floor not a ceiling. It is a starting point where employees can acquire the necessary skills to advance and ultimately earn higher wages."
But Chicago fast food worker Janah Bailey, 21, who has worked at the McDonald's at Chicago and Damen Avenues for 2 years, called Quinn's renewed call for a $10 minimum wage a "victory."
"Fast food workers like myself were on strike across the country, and the fact that a year ago this wasn't even the topic of conversation, now we've managed to change the conversation not only of our governor, but our president as well," she said.
While $10 would be an improvement for Bailey, who currently makes $8.40, she and other low-wage workers with the Fight for 15 campaign are not ready to back down just yet.
"$10 won't lift me out of poverty," she added. "$10 is a step, but we will continue to stand and fight until we reach our demand, which is a $15 living wage."
Among other ways to help working Illinois families, Quinn said he wants to double the Earned Income Tax Credit and provide workers in the state with at least two earned sick days.
But at least one group was disappointed that Quinn did not specifically mention efforts to help immigrant workers who live in the state.
In a statement released before the speech, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) noted that immigrants in Illinois "make up a disproportionately high share of our state's labor force and entrepreneurs." The group urged Quinn to protect investments in immigrant communities as he develops his proposed budget for the next fiscal year.
As far as small businesses go, Quinn wants to reduce the current $500 LLC fee that new businesses have to pay to $39. He also issued an Executive Order to set up a "Small Business Advocate," set to be tasked with examining "policies and proposals through the lens of how they impact Illinois small businesses."
The governor also announced the expansion of a $1 billion revolving loan program, which was first launched in 2012 in attempts to help cities overhaul their aging water systems and create jobs. Quinn said the investment in the program would be doubled this year and expanded to include stormwater and flood control projects.
The loan program is financed with annual federal grants, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, and additional principal and interest from loan repayments made by local governments, according to the governor's office,
Back in 2012 when Quinn proposed the initiative, Illinois officials said the state had a $15 billion backlog of drinking water system repairs - the fourth largest backlog in the nation. During his speech Wednesday, Quinn said the state has received 91 applications for projects since the clean water initiative was launched.
Besides infrastructure projects, the Illinois Hospital Association (IHA) stressed that hospitals and health systems also play a crucial role in bolstering job creation and the state's economy.
In a statement following the State of the State address, IHA noted that one out of every 10 jobs in the state is health-care related, and the state's hospitals and health systems provide an overall boost to local and state economies to the tune of more than $83 billion each year.
“Clearly, hospitals and health systems continue to be critical job creators for their communities,” Illinois Hospital Association President and CEO Maryjane Wurth said in a statement. “Hospitals and health systems are not only vital to the fiscal health of their communities, they are also essential to ensuring the health and well-being of all Illinoisans.”
While Wurth acknowledged the fiscal challenges facing the state, she explained that "any further Medicare and Medicaid cuts will undermine hospitals and health systems as they create jobs and transform health care delivery."
“Illinois’ hospitals and health systems have already been hit by substantial state and federal funding cuts,” she stressed.
Regarding education, Quinn laid out plans for a new "Birth to Five Initiative," which he said will be implemented over the next five years. It's focused on prenatal care, access to early learning opportunities and strong parent support.
"Once our Birth to Five Initiative is fully implemented, mothers will be connected with prenatal care to ensure the healthy birth and development of their children," the governor stated. "Children in Illinois will have access to quality early learning, starting at birth. And parents will have the tools to lead their children to toward success in school, college, career and beyond."
The governor noted that Illinois leads the nation in the number of three-year-olds attending preschool, but he added that the "status quo is not enough."
"The reality is, more than a third of our youngest and most vulnerable children don't have the opportunity to attend early learning programs before they enter kindergarten," he said. "And that's unacceptable."
Leaders at the Ounce of Prevention Fund agree with Quinn, making note of that statement in their response to the speech and adding that the key to success is high-quality programs.
"Now is the time to harness this momentum behind early childhood education to increase investment in high-quality, high-impact early learning programs," said Elliot Regenstein, senior vice-president of Advocacy and Policy for the group. "High quality is key to closing the achievement gap and realizing the economic benefits that can be accrued through early childhood education. Beginning with pregnant mothers and extending after birth through the first five years, high-quality early education and care give all children the best opportunity for future success. Led by well-trained teachers, first-rate early learning programs that are safe, healthy, stimulating and organized help children enter school ready to learn and excel."
Other education-related efforts mentioned in Quinn's speech include doubling the number of MAP college scholarships for students in need and expanding the state's youth and young adult conservation corps, which is a job training program for low-income and at-risk youth.
Mooney, from the Institute of Government and Public Affairs, said Quinn finished his speech without answering one big question.
"He goes off and talks about different spending programs ... It all sounds great," Mooney said. "The question is: how are you going to pay for them?"