Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Quinn lays out five-year plan
in State of the State address

Gov. Pat Quinn gave an upbeat State of the State address today, touting his accomplishments and laying out a five-year plan for economic recovery.

Quinn, who was sworn in as governor after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office, recounted the problems he faced when he became governor and the progress he said the state had made in the interim. “Exactly five years ago this day, I was sworn in as governor, at Illinois’ darkest moment. We were facing an unprecedented triple crisis of government corruption, economic collapse and financial instability,” Quinn said. “It was a perfect storm, and it left destruction in its path. We all knew that repairing the damage that had been done over decades would not happen overnight. But over the past five years, we’ve rebuilt one hard step at a time. And we’ve been getting the job done. Illinois is making a comeback.”

Quinn presented broad strokes of a plan that focused on education programs and economic issues. “It’s a blueprint that recognizes that a truly strong economy relies not just on jobs, but also on fairness and inclusion,” he said. “If we follow this blueprint, we’ll do three things: create more jobs, deliver stronger education and build an economy that works for everyone.” Not surprisingly, Republicans vying for the chance to challenge Quinn in this year’s general election were not impressed by the speech. Their criticisms were similar.

“This afternoon, we heard an election year campaign speech from a governor who’s failing the people of Illinois,” said Bruce Rauner. “We’re one of the worst-run states in America. We have entered an economic death spiral, and Gov. Quinn is trying to cover it up and put a rosy picture on it.” Rauner brushed off questions from reporters regarding negative stories that have recently surfaced about his former investment firm, GTCR Golder Rauner. The company has been linked to neglect cases at nursing homes it invested in.

The venture capitalist from Winnetka today borrowed a line from President Barack Obama. “The attacks, we’ll have plenty of time to talk about them. ‘There’s no there there.’ We’ll be attacked every day in the race. That’s part of politics.” Obama used the “There’s no there there” quote from Gertrude Stein when questions about his administration’s handling of a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, continued to hound him. “There's no there there. The fact that this keeps on getting churned up, frankly, has a whole lot to do with political motivations,” Obama said at a White House news conference.

Sen. Kirk Dillard, who is from Hinsdale, said Quinn should have addressed the state’s temporary income tax increase, which is set to begin stepping down in 2015, taking billion of dollars of revenue with it. “We’re overtaxed. We are greatly overregulated,” he said to the ideas Quinn put forward. 

“That’s not a playbook for success,” Bloomington Sen. Bill Brady said of Quinn’s speech. “Ranking among the worst in the nation is the record of the current administration and the Democrats’ hostility toward the private sector. I didn’t hear any talk about reducing burdensome regulations or lowering the cost of doing business in Illinois through further reforms in our workers' compensation program. I certainly didn’t hear anything about his commitment to cut taxes by allowing his 67 percent income tax increase to expire next year.”

State Treasurer Dan Rutherford, who is from Chenoa, said Quinn’s speech was about what he had expected. “It was what an incumbent governor’s State of the State should be in an election year. It was very optimistic, very positive.” He said that creating a long-term plan is not a bad thing. “I don’t fault long-term planning. As I’ve said more than once on the circuit out there, strategic long-term planning for our state facilities, our capital assets, is extremely important.” However, he said Quinn should have focused more on creating an environment that would encourage private-sector job growth.

While responses to Quinn’s speech were generally tepid. Some Democrats were enthusiastic about the governor’s ideas. “I thought it was an excellent speech,” said Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge. “I thought the governor did a great job of communicating a vision of what it’s going to take in our state to make sure we address these challenges that are out there, so that we can create jobs and maintain the ones that we have. But also make sure we prepare our young people for a future. He’s identified the challenges we face in our state, and I agree with him. He’s taking them head on.”

But the verdict from other Democrats was less glowing. “It’s just talk. So the legislature will begin the process of crafting the budget and trying to work through these issues. We’ve already started. The people of the state of Illinois are tired of talk. They want action,” said Rep. John Bradley, a Democrat from Marion. Bradley is chair of the House Revenue and Finance Committee, which has preempted Quinn in the past on fiscal issues by proposing a spending cap for the budget before the governor gives his budget address.

Economic Issues
By Jamey Dunn 
Quinn pitched several measures targeting businesses and workers, including a proposal to increase the state’s minimum wage. “This year, we really need to get the job done for our fellow citizens who are making the minimum wage of $8.25 per hour. Our minimum wage workers are doing hard work. They’re putting in long hours. Yet in too many instances, they are living in poverty,” he said. “That’s not right. That’s not an Illinois value. And that’s not a fair shake. This is all about dignity and decency. So I said it last year. and I’ll say it again: It’s time to raise Illinois’ minimum wage to at least $10 an hour.”

Quinn called for an increase to the minimum wage last year during his State of the State address. “I’m pleased that the governor is continuing his message on the minimum wage,” said Maywood Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford, who sponsors legislation that would increase the minimum wage. She said she has been negotiating the issue for month with business groups.

Lightford said she knows that it is nearly impossible to expect that the business lobby will support the proposal. “There’s nothing that we can do for a corporation to agree with a minimum wage increase. There will be nothing that you can do. There is no happy medium on an increase.” But she said she has worked to revamp her legislation to give some consideration to businesses. In perhaps the only surprise in the speech, Quinn also called for workers to get at least two paid sick days. Quinn also said he wants to double the Earned Income Tax Credit, which goes to low-income working families, over the next five years.

Doug Whitley, president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said he was glad the governor’s speech focused on the economy. But he said that adding more business regulations would not help job growth. “I was pleased with the themes [of the governor’s speech], but I was not impressed with the details,” he said. Whitley said the minimum wage is not meant to sustain a family. He said those jobs are intended to be for young people, students and those looking to supplement their incomes with part-time work. He said he is concerned that if Illinois increases its minimum wage, which is already greater than many other states, it will hurt its ability to compete. “I would rather see the [U.S.] Congress do it than individual states do it,” Whitley said.

Republican leaders agreed. “The minimum wage doesn’t lift people out of poverty. I think the minimum wage is the wrong discussion,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. “We’re not unsympathetic to the fact that people are making very low wages, but the questions are: Why aren’t people moving into higher wage jobs? How do we create those jobs? And how do we match the talent to get those jobs? So I think focusing only on the minimum wage is a distraction from the real work we need to be doing.”

But proponents say that those living on low wages often also receive help from safety net programs, so taxpayers are in effect being asked to subsidize the cost of workers for private businesses. “Those people will be on government benefits. And they will be relying more on government, and they’ll be relying more on government for services and that costs everybody money,” Kotowski said. “I think people recognize that if you’re working full-time hours but making wages that don’t allow you to feed your family and take care of yourself and pay for the basic necessities of life, there’s something fundamentally wrong.”

Quinn also called for cutting the cost for incorporating a limited liability corporation from $500 to $39. Whitley called that idea “creative and fresh.” But he said: “I’m sure that small businesses will appreciate that. But the magnitude of an increase in the minimum wage and additional required days off will dwarf any savings that that LLC might actually have from a reduction in the fee.”

Some lawmakers said the change might not be realistic, given the state’s budget situation. “What’s the cost to the state of doing that? It’s a great thing to say in a speech, but what’s it going to cost the state?” asked Bradley. “I mean, we’re staring at a really ugly budget scenario coming up and a really difficult fiscal and revenue situation coming up in the near future, and he’s talking about getting rid of money that’s coming in.”

Education initiatives
By Caitlin Rydinski
As part of his address today, Quinn proposed expanding early childhood programs and a college scholarship program, but lawmakers question where the funding for his plans would come from.

Quinn’s “Birth to Five Initiative” looks to provide prenatal care to low-income families, increase access to childhood early education and offer programs that provide parental support. Quinn said his initiative would help taxpayers avoid paying for the cost of medical needs, early intervention, remedial education and grade repetition.

Lightford said Illinois already focuses on early childhood programs from age 3 to 5, so adding prenatal care to age 3 may not be difficult. “It’s really not as difficult of a challenge getting there,” Lightford said. “I think that the area of the wrap-around services that [Quinn has] included with the prenatal care and the parent involvement piece — I think those are good areas to focus on.”

But Lebanon Republican Sen. Kyle McCarter and other legislators are concerned with where funding will come from. “I think it’s a great idea, but if you can buy parental support, we would have bought it decades ago. I don’t know how you buy that. That’s a cultural problem,” McCarter said. “Given the situation we are in with the tight budget, he is going to have to cut something else in order to pay for this.”

Wheaton Republican Sen. Michael Connelly said education is important, but he wants to focus on the economy to give students access to better jobs. “I’ve got a constituent that has a child that is going into a graduate program, and other states … are basically saying Illinois is done. Come to our state. … This is where the future is,” Connelly said of states not only persuading jobs to leave Illinois but also college students. Quinn also proposed to double the funding for Monetary Award Program scholarships that currently about 140,000 students receive.

Many lawmakers want to see both of those programs funded but are concerned they may lose out to other competing budget interests. “I hope that we can find a way to fund that program, as well as the MAP grant,” Lightford said, adding that the MAP program helps keep Illinois competitive with other states in having an educated workforce. While Quinn’s initiative is a five-year plan, Lightford said she hopes the MAP funding increase can happen sooner.

With Western Illinois University and several community and private colleges in his district, Sen. John Sullivan said he supports the doubling of MAP grants. “We know that there’s huge demand there. We talked about actually doubling the scholarships. ... I think most people are supportive of that, but I think the next speech that the governor gives will be the budget address. And so, how is he going to pay for some of these new initiatives like the prenatal program,” he said of the budget issue with the state and the ending of the temporary income tax increase. “The governor has introduced some new perspective and new programs, and I’m going to be interested in how he is going to pay for them.”

Many lawmakers and advocates said they want to know more about how the state will be able to provide the finances for Quinn's education proposals and still maintain the programs Illinois has now. “I think it’s really encouraging to have the governor advocating early childhood education,” said Emily Miller, policy and advocacy director for Voices for Illinois Children. But she said she is waiting for the budget address in February to find out how much funding Quinn will propose for education and early childhood programs.

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