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.