All eyes will be on Governor Pat Quinn as he delivers his annual State of the State message February 6 before a joint session of the General Assembly, according to Senator Jim Oberweis of Sugar Grove.
Little is known at this time about the direction Governor Quinn’s message will take, though governors traditionally have used the State of the State to deliver upbeat messages about their records, unveil new initiatives and proclaim better days ahead.
However, Governor Quinn leads a state where disastrous financial news has become the norm and he will face a legislature where members of both parties seem skeptical of his ability to negotiate the tough times ahead.
Although rising costs in Illinois’ retirement systems for teachers and other public employees threaten to bury other areas of state government and drive the state’s credit rating even lower, Governor Quinn has been unable to advance needed pension reforms for well over a year.
Lawmakers are anxious to hear if Governor Quinn will finally unveil his own plan for reforms or offer a roadmap for fixing the problem. Republican lawmakers have pledged to work with the Governor and with Democrat super-majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives to find solutions, Senator Oberweis said.
Republican legislative leaders have consistently supported reform and one bipartisan pension proposal won approval in the Senate last year with significant Republican support, but was never called for a vote in the House of Representatives. The Senate President has filed his own proposal, which is scheduled for a hearing February 5 in the Senate Executive Committee.
The model for cooperation could be similar to the landmark Medicaid reforms approved during the 2012 legislative session by bipartisan majorities. In fact, Senator Oberweis said lawmakers are awaiting an update on the implementation of those reforms.
The success of the 2012 Medicaid reforms in bringing costs under control is contingent on effective implementation by the Quinn Administration. In the fall, Republicans questioned what appeared to be a delay by the Quinn Administration to implement the Medicaid reform law. On February 6, many Senate Republican lawmakers will be looking for reassurance from the Governor that his office is moving forward with the reforms.
If the Administration fails to reach targets set out in the reforms it would dig an even deeper hole in the state’s current year budget and make next year’s budget even more difficult to balance.
The state’s daunting fiscal challenges prompt concerns from Senator Oberweis that the Governor will again try to borrow additional revenue to finance state spending. In past years, Republican lawmakers have successfully blocked new borrowing schemes because a super-majority vote is needed to increase state debt. Democrats now hold super-majorities in both chambers and could push through a borrowing plan without Republican support.
Opponents view more borrowing as an attempt to push today’s costs onto future generations and lock Illinois into a state of permanent financial crisis.
Still, with Illinois’ pension obligations threatening to overwhelm available state revenues, the push for pension reforms is expected to overshadow almost every other issue. Lawmakers are anxious to hear how the Governor proposes to address the problem.
After failing to advance reforms in the last legislative session, Governor Quinn turned his attention to a “grassroots” campaign that never got beyond a cartoon python and videos of school kids pretending to hire a lobbyist to advance their cause.
In the meantime, the state’s credit rating has continued to tank, with Illinois now at its lowest level ever. Illinois has seen 11 credit downgrades during Governor Quinn’s time in office, more than all other governors combined, and the state’s credit rating now sits at the bottom of the nation.
The credit downgrade prompted the Governor to delay a planned bond sale at the end of January, deciding instead to wait for more favorable market conditions. In recent months, grim financial assessments have come not only from credit rating agencies, but from the state’s Comptroller and from the Governor’s own budget office.
There is also speculation that the Governor may devote a significant part of his speech to promoting gun control. Major new restrictions on semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips failed to get off the ground in the January lame-duck session.
At the same time, a court ruled that Illinois must join 49 other states in allowing its citizens some form of right-to-carry firearms legislation. Balancing the conflicting interests of gun control and Second Amendment advocates will likely prove difficult during the coming spring legislative session.
With the many challenging issues facing Illinois, lawmakers and the public are anxious to hear the Governor’s plans when he steps to the podium in the Capitol February 6.