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Education investments top Quinn's priorities; lawmakers ask for budget details

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn delivers the State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly in the House chambers at the Illinois State Capitol Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Springfield Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Posted: Jan. 29, 2014 5:38 pm Updated: Feb. 13, 2014 5:15 am

By DOUG WILSON
Herald-Whig Senior Writer

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Gov. Pat Quinn said the pension overhaul law has "stopped the bleeding" for the Illinois budget, and he laid out several new initiatives that he wants to tackle this year.

During his State of the State address on Wednesday, Quinn told how reforms that will reduce the state's unfunded pension liability by almost $100 million were a painful challenge that took "political courage" to pass. Quinn's speech came a day after a group of unions filed suit in a bid to have the law ruled unconstitutional for cutting benefits for state employees and retirees.

This year's top priorities include a pair of investments in education.

Quinn said he wants to increase prenatal care, early learning and parental support in an expansion of programs from birth to age 5. He didn't tell how much money the expansion will cost. At the other end of the education program, Quinn called for doubling the number of monetary award program (MAP) scholarships for college students. The needs-based scholarship program helps 140,000 students go to college each year, Quinn said.

Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, was pleased to hear about the emphasis on education, but he wonders where the money will come from.

"The governor's next speech will be the budget address, and it will be important to see how he's coming up with the money to implement these programs when the state's going to see a loss of about $2.1 billion," Sullivan said.

Revenue will decline when an income tax hike sunsets at the end of the calendar year -- six months into the state's fiscal year.

State law does not allow budgets to include any funds that are not available under current law, so lawmakers were curious about how Quinn can expand any spending.

"He certainly didn't mention anything about the income tax in his speech," said Rep. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy.

Tracy was happy to hear that education and early childhood learning will be a higher priority, but she also wants to hear more about how it will be financed. Tracy said K-12 schools have lost about $861 million in state funding during the past five years. She does not believe those dollars can be recovered until the state pays down an estimated $9 billion in overdue bills to vendors and service providers.

"I didn't hear any meaningful solutions on that," Tracy said.

Quinn also wants to focus on the business climate, with a special emphasis on helping small businesses. He promised to create a new position to advise him on issues that will help businesses start or grow.

In tandem with the new position, Quinn wants the state to reduce a filing fee to create a limited liability company to $39, which would be one of the lowest in the nation, from its current fee of $500, which is among the highest in the nation.

Republican lawmakers applauded Quinn's call for more emphasis on business, but they said he tore down his own program by calling for a minimum wage hike to $10 per hour, up from the state's $8.25 rate.

"Other than a good proposal to reduce the filing fee for creating a limited liability company, he did not lay out any real solutions that will make it easier to create jobs," Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville, said. "I hoped to hear some ideas about reducing our deficit and debt, or some indication of preparing for the expiration of his ‘temporary' tax increase at the end of this year. We need a stable tax and job creation environment without the constant threat of higher taxes and more regulation. We did not hear that today."

Quinn announced a $1 billion extension of a loan program to help communities repair water systems. He said the program will create 28,000 jobs. It was first started in 2012 and has received 91 applications worth more than $1 billion in requests.

The governor also wants to double an income tax credit aimed at helping poor Illinois families keep an average of $100 more per year.

Wednesday was the fifth anniversary of Quinn's elevation to governor after former governor Rod Blagojevich was ousted from office. Blagojevich is now serving a federal prison sentence for corruption.

Quinn said he helped restore integrity to state government and welcomed the legalization of same-sex marriage in Illinois.

The Associated Press provided information for this story.

--dwilson@whig.com/221-3372