Gov. Pat Quinn focused on ways to create jobs and trumpeted his accomplishments with election-year flair Wednesday in an annual speech that fell on the five-year anniversary of lawmakers booting his predecessor, now imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, from office.
Quinn talked about inheriting an office laden with problems, such as a mounting pension crisis, fiscal issues and corruption. He detailed his work to a turn them around and laid out a plan stressing job creation and education for the five years ahead, a nod to his re-election campaign.
His plan for jobs included adding a small-business advocate to his staff, slashing the $500 fee to start a limited liability company to $39, paying more attention to early education and prenatal care, doubling the number of monetary award program scholarships for college students and investing in a new Chicago center for medical technology startups.
Area Republican legislators were united in their opinions about what they heard.
“The governor talked in pretty rosy terms, sugarcoating the truth,” said state Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon. “Illinois has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and a backlog of unpaid bills for many years. There’s a real disconnect there.”
State Rep. Bob Pritchard, R-Hinckley, said Quinn focused more on looking backward than what lies ahead.
“It sounded like a campaign speech,” Pritchard said. “Illinois needs a bold vision for moving forward.”
Pritchard said Quinn tried to take credit for job increases, but didn’t talk about unemployment.
“He didn’t talk about out-migration,” Pritchard said. “People are voting with their feet.”
The governor also didn’t address the state’s other major looming financial issue, including what he thinks should happen to a 2011 increase in the personal income tax that is set to expire in January 2015. He briefly mentioned the state’s backlog of unpaid bills, which is estimated to be about $6 billion by year’s end. He didn’t propose a new capital construction plan; the current one has been touted as one of his signature achievements.
Instead, Quinn focused on issues affecting working people, a theme that’s been part of his 2014 campaign.
He called to again double the earned income tax credit, something he did in 2011. He also reiterated his push to increase the minimum wage from $8.25 to at least $10 an hour, which coincides with a national Democratic strategy and has been a main issue among Republicans hoping to replace Quinn.
The state minimum wage already is $1 higher than the national minimum, but Quinn said that increasing the minimum would benefit the Main Street economy because for each $1 an hour increase in their income, minimum wage workers would have an extra $2,800 a year to spend in their communities.
“They’re putting in long hours. Yet in too many instances, they are living in poverty,” he said of low-wage workers. “That’s not right. That’s not an Illinois value.”
State Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, disagreed with Quinn’s proposal to increase minimum wage.
“Anytime you raise the minimum wage, you impact businesses,” Bivins said. “The question then becomes, can the businesses afford it?”
State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, said Quinn’s proposals on increasing the minimum wage, increasing the earned income credit and adding regulations on small employers requiring them to cover at least 2 earned sick days a year would hinder growth.
“There is very little discussion about doing things to grow those middle-class jobs,” Syverson said. “He may be sincere, unfortunately, he’s not correct.”
“We’ve tried those theories for the last nine years in Illinois,” Syverson said. “The things we’re doing aren’t working.”
Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, highlighted other accomplishments during his tenure, including the state’s legalization of same-sex marriage and a pension overhaul designed to eliminate Illinois’ $100 billion unfunded liability – the worst in the nation – by cutting benefits for retirees and employees.
Quinn has been reserved in taking credit for the reform plan, particularly since it’s prompted lawsuits from labor unions, the latest of which was filed Tuesday. The lawsuits say the plan is unconstitutional, but Quinn has said it will hold up to a court challenge. Still, he took a careful tone Wednesday, thanking legislators who voted and the committee that created the framework.
• The Associated Press contributed to this report.