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Quinn pushes for minimum wage hike, gun control and gay marriage

Gov. PQuinn delivers State State address Wednesday Springfield.

Gov. Pat Quinn delivers the State of the State address Wednesday in Springfield.

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Updated: March 8, 2013 7:37AM



SPRINGFIELD — Dogged by dangerously low approval ratings, Gov. Pat Quinn Wednesday delivered a legislative blueprint for the spring that appeared aimed at boosting his hazy political prospects — and it all began with a hug between him and the Democrat who may ruin his re-election bid next year.

Quinn’s 38-minute State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly focused on the perennially unmet need for pension reform but also seemed built around shoring up his Democratic base with calls for a minimum wage hike, tighter gun control and legalization of gay marriage.

But before the speech, Quinn embraced a lineup of dignitaries that included Attorney General Lisa Madigan in a awkwardly delicious piece of political imagery that could stand as one of the last acts of cordiality between two potential Democratic rivals in the 2014 governor’s race.

In a mostly upbeat address, Quinn said Illinois has “moved forward” since his 2009 arrival as governor but acknowledged the state is at “a critical juncture” in facing the politically toxic task of solving a $95 billion pension crisis and improving the state’s worst-in-the-nation budget ranking.

“We have moved Illinois forward, but we have much more to do,” Quinn said. “At this point, each and every one of us has a choice to make about what we want our Illinois to look like.

“Do we want, in the years to come, a prosperous Illinois where working people continue to have good jobs, where businesses thrive and where all our children have a world-class education? Or do we want to stop the progress and watch our economic recovery stall,” Quinn asked.

The governor challenged lawmakers to remain focused on reeling in pension benefits for state workers and retirees and Downstate and suburban teachers, saying ballooning pension payments continue to threaten everything else the state must pay for.

“We have a tall task ahead of us,” Quinn said. “This is no small issue. And doing what’s hard isn’t always what’s popular at the moment. But, we must remember that hard is not impossible.”

He singled out legislation sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), Senate Bill 1, as the “best vehicle” to address the state’s mammoth unfunded pension liabilities but acknowledged unspecified “refinements” may be necessary on the measure.

But the pronouncement during his 38-minute speech wasn’t enough to satisfy GOP critics wanting to know more about any new ideas Quinn had to stop the state’s pension-driven fiscal hemorrhaging and succeed when three other efforts have stalled in the Legislature since last May.

“There was less than 30 seconds spent on it,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), who dismissed Quinn’s address as “a campaign kickoff speech.”

House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) said Quinn’s posture on the pension question is meaningless since House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) has been silent on what specific plan he favors to cut back pensions.

“The bottom line is [Quinn] can talk about pensions. We can talk about pensions. The [Senate] president can talk about pensions, but until the speaker tells us what he wants to do about pensions, we don’t know,” Cross said. “Therein lies the problem.”

After the address, Quinn got no help in selling his agenda from the attorney general’s father and state chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois. The speaker ducked reporters and instead was represented by surrogates, who called Quinn’s speech “pretty good” as House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) did — or worse.

“Maybe he’s got a sore throat,” said state Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), a member of Madigan’s leadership team when asked about the speaker’s silence on Quinn’s speech. “Maybe he’s got a plane to catch. Maybe the speech left him cold. It could just simply be he has no reaction because there was no meat on the bone. I guess he could’ve said that, but maybe he likes to leave others like me to say it for him.”

During an address interrupted by Democratic applause at least a half dozen times, Quinn urged state lawmakers to raise the state’s $8.25 an hour minimum wage to $10 an hour during the next four years, which faces universal resistance from business leaders.

“Our businesses are only as good as the employees who drive their success. Nobody in Illinois should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty. That’s a principle as old as the Bible,” Quinn said, drawing Democratic applause. “That’s why, over the next four years, we must raise the minimum wage to at least $10 an hour.”

Quinn also pushed for tougher gun-control measures, invoking the name of slain Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton, who has emerged as the latest and prettiest face of the city’s unchecked killing spree, and pointing to Orland Park Police Chief Tim McCarthy. Sitting in the House gallery Wednesday, McCarthy is the former Secret Service agent who took a bullet intended for President Ronald Reagan in a 1981 assassination attempt.

“We cannot wait for another tragedy to happen before we take action,” Quinn said. “We must move forward with a comprehensive plan that includes gun safety legislation, mental health care and violence prevention strategies.”

Quinn called for a ban on the sale and possession of military-style “assault” weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, which faces long legislative odds, and urged that schools all begin practicing drills to instruct children and staff how to react if a gunman enters their schools.

The governor also said concealed carry legislation that a federal court has ordered Illinois to implement by mid-year must “ensure that guns are kept out of everyday public places because they don’t belong in our schools, shopping malls or sports stadiums.”

On another hot-button social issue, the governor made a renewed pitch for legalization of gay marriage after a Senate panel Tuesday advanced legislation to do just that.

“Marriage equality is coming to Illinois,” he said, drawing more applause from the crowded House chamber even though it’s not clear the votes exist there to pass the bill if it gets out of the Senate as early as next week.

Quinn touched on beefing up the state’s ethics laws, including passing something that would bar legislators from casting votes when they have a conflict of interest. Now, it’s voluntary for them not to vote if they have a conflict.

Quinn’s big ideas and their prospects of going anywhere this spring run headlong into his exceptionally low standing with voters, his own vulnerability as he enters the second half of his first full term and the crosscurrents that have clouded his political future.

“Everything that goes on this spring will be viewed through the political lens of the upcoming governor’s race, not only between the parties but also within the parties,” Radogno said when asked how the tension between the governor and attorney general could dictate legislative outcomes in the months ahead.

In November, only one in four Illinois voters thought Quinn was doing a good job, while 64 percent disapproved of his job, according to a survey by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, which characterized Quinn as the least popular governor in the country.

A Jan. 30 poll conducted by We Ask America for the Capitol Fax political newsletter published by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rich Miller showed slight improvement for Quinn, with 37 percent of those surveyed approving the governor’s job performance and 42 percent disapproving.

Regardless of the polling, that poor public support has clipped Quinn’s power to move things in the Legislature, hurt his fund-raising efforts and left him weakened heading into the 2014 election cycle, where the three-term attorney general and former U.S. Commerce Secretary William Daley are mulling primary runs against the governor.

After Quinn’s speech, Lisa Madigan offered restrained praise for the governor’s speech but explicitly didn’t rule out running against him in 2014.

“Making sure that everybody in the state capitol realizes that we have to address the pension issue — that’s job one. And so I do think he talked about that. I do think he made that point. So I think that’s a good day for him,” Madigan told reporters.

When pressed on whether she intended to take on the governor in a primary, the attorney general did nothing to quash the speculation.

“I’ll let you guys know when I have an opinion on that. If I made a decision, you guys would know about it,” she said, chuckling.

Quinn ended his speech by renewing his push for pension reform and noting the 2012 election-year accomplishments he helped push: the abolition of the scandal-tainted legislative scholarship program and budget-saving Medicaid cuts and state facility closures.

In trying to rally support for his new agenda, Quinn singled out a Downstate Marine named Tyler Ziegel, who overcame devastating injuries from a 2004 suicide bomb attack in Iraq that required 59 surgeries but died in a December fall.

“He was a good Marine — Semper Fi — and a man I was proud to know. If our service members can summon that kind of courage day after day,” Quinn said, “then surely we can summon political courage in the days to come.”



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