Gov. Pat Quinn faces big expectations over how he'll address Illinois' disastrous finances when he delivers his State of the State speech at noon today, but he's hinting he'll also remind the public how the state's image has been cleaned up under his watch.
The annual speech is expected to set the tone for the year, touching on broad themes ahead of a later budget address on the nitty-gritty of running government. But this is the governor's best chance to boast of accomplishments, and Quinn has yet to succeed at forging compromise on pension reform and other issues as he did with helping restore the state's reputation after his two predecessors went off to prison.
The governor could touch on other topics too, including gay marriage, which is expected to come up for a Senate vote next week, gun control, the environment and possibly immigration.
Focusing on ethics more than finances could be tricky for Quinn, however. Illinois is staring down the worst pension problem in the nation, with nearly $100 billion in unfunded liability, and he's on the spot to show progress as Republicans and some Democrats begin eyeing his seat in next year's governor's race.
Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, said Illinoisans deserve an honest assessment from Quinn on the state's money problems.
"Illinois has the worst credit rating in the nation, the worst pension debt in the nation, and is crippled with an estimated backlog of $9 billion in unpaid bills," Kay said. "To top it off, the temporary 67 percent income tax hike signed into law by Gov. Quinn generated $7.5 billion in new revenue in 2011.With the income tax hike set to phase down in 2014, the governor is faced with the challenge of developing a plan to ensure the temporary tax is indeed temporary."
Kay added: "I'm curious if the governor will propose a plan to phase out the 67 percent income tax hike. If not, what is his plan to curb spending?"
When asked last week, Quinn wouldn't reveal exactly what he's going to say in his first major speech of the year Wednesday. But he told reporters it's important to remember how scandal-free the state has been since 2009 when he was tapped as lieutenant governor to lead Illinois after the embarrassing corruption scandal that engulfed former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Lawmakers said they expect Quinn to spend time on gun control, gay marriage and possibly immigration. Some observers say too much focus on ethics might reflect that Quinn's term hasn't produced enough landmark successes that are easy to cite.
"While he has kept the governor's office free of corruption, as far as anyone knows, that's not a huge accomplishment in the grand scheme of things," said Christopher Mooney, a University of Illinois at Springfield political science professor. "It might look like that relative to his two predecessors, but most governors, most of the time, even in Illinois, are not convicted of crimes and thrown into prison."
At the same time, reminding people of his reputation for honesty and earnestness is likely to be a key part of Quinn's re-election bid.
David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, can't ignore the fiscal problems in his address.
"He has to talk about pensions and the budget. Other issues are important, but they've almost become a side show," said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "I really want to hear a Winston Churchill speech. I want to hear a leader stand up and tell me things I don't want to hear about the tough things ahead. We shouldn't sugar-coat that."