By DOUG WILSON
Herald-Whig Senior Writer
Gov. Pat Quinn used his fifth State of the State speech to focus on several issues, including a pension funding crisis he said must be Job 1 for the Legislature.
"Our vision for our Illinois cannot be fully realized without pension reform," Quinn said. "This problem cannot be delayed, deferred or delegated to the next session ... or the next generation."
Quinn said the worst-in-the-nation pension shortfall of $96 billion is costing the state $17 million a day and is "squeezing out education, public safety and other vital services."
Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton, is Quinn's favored solution and the governor thanked his fellow Chicago Democrat for a plan that calls for full funding by 2043. He also praised House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, and Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, for working in bipartisan fashion on the pension problem.
Freshman lawmaker Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville, noticed that Quinn did not mention House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago. Any pension reform package would have to be supported by Madigan to have a chance of passage.
"I don't think there's any surprise that this is ... the start of a new campaign" which may affect political alliances, Davidsmeyer said.
Unions representing state workers rejected Quinn's characterizations that pensions have created the state's problem. Union members have always made their contributions, but lawmakers repeatedly skipped the state's contributions. Union officials say that caused the huge shortfall.
"The governor's claim that the choice is pensions or pencils is deeply unfair," said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
"Teachers and other education professionals share no fault in the problem, but are willing to share in the sacrifice, and to simply balance the budget on their backs is wrong."
Quinn's endorsement of a $10 per hour minimum wage proposal brought an immediate reaction from business leaders.
"At $8.25 per hour, Illinois already has the nation's third-highest minimum wage. If it went to $10, that would be the highest in the nation," said Amy Looten, president of the Quincy Area Chamber of Commerce.
Businesses already hit by high costs and low profit margins would shift the cost of products, causing inflation to rise, Looten said.
Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce, called the wage proposal untimely and ill-advised.
"Given the state's struggle to reverse the high unemployment in much of the state, the governor's desire to dictate the highest minimum wage in the country is bewildering," Whitley said.
In his annual address to a joint session of the General Assembly, Quinn proposed prohibiting lawmakers from voting on issues where they have a conflict of interest, urging the Legislature to impose the same kind of ethics requirements on itself that it previously approved for judges and administration officials in a state that has seen its last two governors jailed on corruption charges.
Elevated to the job after his former running mate, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was impeached and removed from office before beginning a 14-year federal prison term for political corruption, Quinn said it's time to bolster reforms that created the state's first-ever limits on campaign financing.
The ban on what he called "conflict of interest" voting is an idea that Quinn said he first broached nearly 40 years ago with support of more than 600,000 voters signing a petition. It's something more than half the states already have adopted. Quinn argued that the courts and executive branch are "regulated all over" but that a new law should be approved governing the ethical conduct of legislators.
There were few other direct challenges in a speech traditionally reserved for a governor to highlight his accomplishments in the past year. Quinn trumpeted job creation, a Medicaid overhaul and the closure of 54 state facilities to save money, workers' compensation reform, clean water and infrastructure improvements. Quinn called for a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition feeders.
Other new ideas included Quinn's announcement that he signed an executive order Wednesday ordering licensing agencies to consider military training in helping veterans get certification and jobs in specialized fields. He announced a partnership with the University of Illinois to create a Chicago lab where companies can learn new technologies and computer software. And he called for a law allowing voters to participate in primary elections for one political party or another without making that choice public.
Davidsmeyer and Rep. Norine Hammond, R-Macomb, said the veterans and jobs issues were among the items they liked in his speech.
The Associated Press provided information for this story.