SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn fashioned his State of the State speech Wednesday into a 2014 re-election treatise, calling for a hike in the minimum wage, touted his pension-reform efforts and repeatedly stressed that “Illinois is making a comeback.”
“We’ve led Illinois’ comeback one hard step at a time. We’ve worked to repair decades of damage, and we’re getting the job done,” Quinn told a joint session of the General Assembly during a speech interrupted repeatedly by applause from the House and Senate Democratic supermajorities, the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting.
“And we’re getting the job done. Let’s keep our shoulder to the wheel and finish the job,” Quinn said.
During his speech, Quinn called for increasing the state’s $8.25-per-hour minimum wage to at least $10 an hour, doubling state scholarships for low-income college students and renewing a push for early-childhood spending. He also hinted at the need for another multibillion-dollar round of state construction spending, though no plans were explicitly mentioned in the speech.
In laying out the broad parameters of his spring legislative agenda and a glimpse of his platform for a second full term, Quinn evaded what promises to be the most dominant issue in this year’s campaign cycle: what to do about the temporary state income tax increase that expires in January.
The governor’s speech marked the second State of the State he has delivered heading into a gubernatorial election as a politically vulnerable incumbent.
With favorability ratings hovering slightly above 30 percent, Quinn faces a more energized and potentially more potent Republican challenge than in 2010 with the prospect of having key labor allies on the sidelines this fall because of lingering fallout from state pension cutbacks he enacted last month.
A powerful bloc of public-sector unions that backed him four years ago — including AFSCME Council 31, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Education Association, among others — sued the governor Tuesday to block the pension law they likened to “theft.”
But the governor touted those pension-reform efforts, which he called “historic.”
“It was hard. It was painful. And it took political courage,” he said. “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.”
Sensing Quinn’s vulnerabilities, Republicans were quick to pounce on what they described as the governor’s failed promise to deliver job growth to a state that has never fully recovered from the economic shockwaves that began after 9/11 and accelerated during the housing crash of the late 2000s.
“No election-year speech will change the fact that Pat Quinn is failing the people of Illinois,” said private equity investor Bruce Rauner, whose relentless TV ad blitz has made him the early frontrunner in the four-way GOP field for governor.
“Higher taxes and lower incomes under Pat Quinn are delivering a double blow to working families throughout Illinois, and too many folks can’t find any work at all,“ Rauner said.
The minimum-wage push Quinn championed could unfold in the midst of the Republican primary and energize low-income workers whose support the governor is counting upon this fall, assuming he skates through his own primary against anti-violence activist Tio Hardiman.
Rauner’s position on that issue has been all over the map since the fall, when he first told a Downstate audience he was “adamantly, adamantly” opposed to an increase, then advocated a cut in the $8.25-per-hour rate, and most recently, has said he’d favor an increase if it were tied to a series of business-friendly measures.
Rauner’s GOP rivals — Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, and Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington — both oppose an increase and could face having to put that opposition on the record in a Senate roll call. Treasurer Dan Rutherford also opposes an increase.
During this speech, Quinn rattled off his accomplishments in office, particularly those he enacted during a busy spring and fall legislative session: pension reform, same-sex marriage, new funding for a south suburban airport and Medicaid expansion necessitated by the Affordable Care Act.
The governor’s address came exactly five years to the day that the Illinois Senate voted to oust Quinn’s predecessor and one-time running mate, Rod Blagojevich, from office – a time the governor described as “Illinois’ darkest moment” worsened by nation’s recession.
“Five years ago this day, I stood before you and I asked for your prayers. Illinois was in a state of emergency, and there was no quick exit. There were no easy solutions. Recovery would require tough medicine and unpopular decisions, and it would take time,” Quinn said. “But by tackling hard issue after hard issue and never giving up, we are getting the job done.