SPRINGFIELD | Teasing out his 2014 re-election platform, Gov. Pat Quinn presented his plan Wednesday to reverse Illinois' stubborn unemployment over the next five years in an annual speech falling on the anniversary of the Chicago Democrat inheriting the job he wants to keep.
While highlighting the achievements of his five years in office, Quinn focused on issues affecting working families as he essentially made his argument for another term with all five candidates hoping to replace him watching along with lawmakers in the state Capitol's House chambers.
The governor proposed adding a small-business advocate to his staff, reducing a business fee, more scholarships for college students, doubling the earned income tax credit and investing in medical technology startups. He reiterated a call for raising the minimum wage and proposed beefing up early education programs and prenatal care.
The State of the State address fell on the fifth anniversary of when lawmakers booted his predecessor Rod Blagojevich from office, the second consecutive Illinois governor to head to prison on corruption charges. Quinn recalled taking over during an "unprecedented triple crisis" with a scandal-marked office, the economic downturn and the state's fiscal instability.
The Chicago Democrat said his jobs plan — and accomplishments such the recent adoption of landmark state pension reforms — would help Illinois move forward.
"Over the past five years, we've rebuilt one hard step at a time. And we've been getting the job done," Quinn said during the nearly 40-minute address. "Illinois is making a comeback."
But others — particularly Quinn's potential challengers — didn't see it that way.
The address comes as Illinois reports one of the nation's highest unemployment rates at 8.6 percent. It also still has the lowest credit rating of any state in the country, largely because of the pension problem.
Republican venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, of suburban Chicago, called it a campaign speech from a failing governor.
"We're one the worst-run states in America," he told reporters after the speech. "We have entered an economic death spiral, and Gov. Quinn is trying to cover it up and put a rosy picture on it."
Others on the March primary ballot echoed that criticism. Those seeking the Republican nomination also include state Treasurer Dan Rutherford and state Sens. Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady. The governor faces a Democratic challenge from former anti-violence activist Tio Hardiman.
Some thought Quinn didn't spend enough time on the state's looming financial issues. He briefly mentioned the state's backlog in unpaid bills estimated to be about $6 billion by year's end, but he didn't address what he thinks should happen when a temporary income tax increase is rolled back next year. His budget spokesman has said issues pertaining to the budget will be addressed in a later speech on the budget.
"It's the elephant in the room. Everyone's talking about what's going to happen halfway through this fiscal year," said Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno. "It's the focus of the gubernatorial campaigns and there was not a single mention of it."
Instead, Quinn focused on issues affecting working people, which are expected to become central to his campaign.
He also reiterated his push to increase the minimum wage from $8.25 to at least $10, which coincides with a national Democratic strategy. He called to again double the earned income tax credit, something the state last did in 2011 as part of a larger tax incentives package to keep big companies in Illinois. He also said he'd like to expand the state's youth conservation corps programs, which will prepare young people for the workplace, and extend a program to help fix aging water systems.
Quinn did trumpet some goals that he had achieved since his last speech. He signed a new law legalizing same-sex marriage and a sweeping pension overhaul aimed at eliminating the state's nearly $100 billion unfunded pension liability.
In the weeks since the pension deal, the governor had been measured in taking credit, particularly since it has prompted several union lawsuits, including one filed Tuesday. The bill cuts benefits for employees and retirees, which unions claim is unconstitutional. Quinn has said it'll hold up to a court challenge, but he took a careful tone Wednesday, thanking legislators who voted and the committee that created the framework.
"It was hard. It was painful. And it took political courage. But together we got the job done," he said. "We can tell the people of Illinois we stopped the bleeding. We turned the corner."
Fellow Chicago Democrats said the focus on pensions as good news was important.
Senate President John Cullerton, of Chicago, said Quinn delivered "a strong message on the progress of our state."
Democratic state Rep. Mike Zalewski, of Riverside, said the speech was a "unique opportunity for him to be positive."
Still, others questioned how Illinois would pay for some of the programs Quinn outlined. A Quinn spokesman said details — particularly on the education initiatives — would follow in a Feb. 19 budget address.
"It's more populism. It's more big spending. It's pushing the can down the road. Pat Quinn is not one who's ever done heavy lifting," Dillard said. "And this state has major, major crises and Pat Quinn needs to face up to them."