Wednesday, January 13, 2010

State of the state

By Jamey Dunn with Rachel Wells contributing

Governor Pat Quinn gave his State of the State address in front of the General Assembly today. While the speech lasted over an hour and was laced with emotional moments, Quinn did not offer any new ideas or specific policy plans.

Quinn delivered his speech while referring to notes on yellow legal paper, and chose to focus primarily on the positive. He outlined some of what he counted as successes since he became governor, such as the reopening of state historic sites and parks. He also highlighted the passage of a capital construction plan, campaign finance reform, a ban on texting while driving and a recall amendment. Quinn said he would like to see an amendment next to recall on the ballot in November that would allow citizens to petition for ethics reforms through a referendum system. Quinn said that passing the two amendments this year would “complete the job” of ethics reform that was started last session.

Quinn addressed some of the recent controversies that his administrating has faced. He touted the planned sale of Thomson prison to the federal government to house Guantanamo Bay detainees as a patriotic move that would benefit both the state and the feds.

The governor also brought up the “Meritorious Good Time Push” prisoner early release program that landed him in hot water recently. He maintained that he did not know that violent offenders were being included in the plan and that Department of Corrections director Michael Randle made the decisions on whom to let go early. However, Quinn did say that as chief executive officer, the ultimate responsibility was his. He added that the state still needs to consider whether it is cost effective to imprison “low-level nonviolent offenders.”

“The No. 1 issue in Illinois today is getting our economy back on track," Quinn said. However, it was not really the focus of his speech. Quinn did emphasize the need to create jobs, especially in the “green” sector. He once again pledged to build a new veterans home in Chicago, an airport in Peotone and threw his support behind high-speed rail. He also called for a “fair” tax increase that would use exemptions and tax credits to “cut taxes on people who need help the most.”

Quinn ended his speech with a tearful call to action to elected officials, encouraging bipartisan efforts to fix the state’s woes. Quinn said that his late father had told him “to work hard, to treat other people with dignity, don’t call people names, be honest be trustworthy.” He added, “That, to me, is what Illinois is all about. ...We can accomplish great things if we work together.”

The governor’s critics said the speech lacked substance and ignored the state’s dire financial situation. Comptroller Dan Hynes, Quinn’s Democratic opponent for governor, said he thought Quinn’s speech was “heartfelt” but “ a disappointment in a lot of ways because it failed to address the most important issues facing our state — the growing budget crisis, job losses, mounting debt and the fact that our communities are less safe.”

Calling this year’s State of the State address a “feel good … campaign speech,” House Republican Leader Tom Cross said Quinn lacked the specifics on budget cuts and did nothing to assure him that Quinn could actually accomplish his goals.

Cross questioned Quinn’s sincerity when it comes to bipartisanship. He expressed frustration that Quinn failed to meet with the Republican caucus — whose votes are not needed to pass most measures in the House – before his State of the State speech. He likened Quinn to Blagojevich in failing to include the minority party in most discussions.

“(Quinn) is wholly entrenched in the system. The gadfly political outsider has become the ultimate insider working with the speaker of the House and president of the Senate to preserve his power, to preserve his office,” Cross said.

Todd Maisch of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce said the governor needed to be more direct about his plans to help rebuild the state’s economy. “There were no specifics…there was no sense of urgency … what he talked about today sounds fine … but frankly it’s nibbling around the edges of a huge problem,” He said. “When it comes to the central issues that are facing Illinoisans — job losses and a state government that’s bankrupt — there was no take away today.”

State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who is also a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, said Quinn is facing some big challenges. “It’s not dissimilar to the situation that President Obama faced when he took office,” said Giannoulias. “I think the one point that (Quinn) did hit on was that the next couple years will be some of the hardest years for state government that we’ve ever seen.”

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