For much of January, political news and media coverage revolved around President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address (SOTU), which he delivered on Tuesday night. In many places, this intense focus on the SOTU overshadowed the State of the State speeches delivered by governors across the country.
On Wednesday afternoon, five years to the day after being sworn in as Illinois’ 41st governor, Pat Quinn, delivered his annual remarks at the Illinois Statehouse in Springfield. As a gubernatorial election year gets underway in Illinois, the governor’s address proved to be as much a campaign speech as an assertion of his legislative agenda for the coming year.
In his State of the State address—his second delivered in an election year—Governor Pat Quinn announced plans to create jobs, increase spending on early childhood education programs, and push for an increase in the minimum wage. While he acknowledged the dire realities faced by the state when he first took office—with passing references to jailed ex-governors, a collapsing economy, and rampant political corruption—Governor Quinn struck an upbeat and hopeful tone in an attempt to rally voters to elect him for a second term.
Governor Quinn also touted reforms of the state’s unemployment insurance system, marriage equality legislation, and the implementation of comprehensive (although contested) pension reform as some of his major recent accomplishments, before announcing his new five-year jobs plan, aimed at creating jobs and strengthening the education system. Quinn also touched on various work programs, such as the “Veteran Bridge Program,” as well as his trade missions to countries such as Canada and Japan.
In an attempt to refute Republicans’ claims that the he has been “anti-business,” Governor Quinn announced several new initiatives aimed at improving the state’s climate for small businesses. Quinn proposed decreasing the LLC fee that new businesses must pay from the $500 it currently is to $39, thereby reducing one of the barriers to owning a small business while simultaneously setting Illinois’ LLC fee as the lowest in the nation. Quinn also issued an executive order establishing the position of Small Business Advocate, which will focus solely on the effects of legislation on small businesses.
Governor Quinn spent a considerable portion of the speech unveiling intended reforms to the educational system in Illinois. He announced his Birth to Five initiative, designed to support mothers through prenatal care, children through increased access to early childhood education, and families through parent support programs. Additionally, the governor discussed the state’s recent education initiatives, noting that “In the last five years, we’ve been getting the job done on education reform. Parents are now empowered with a report card on their children’s schools. Teacher evaluations have strong benchmarks. And performance is prioritized over tenure. In fact, our reforms have become a model for the nation.” Quinn identified early childhood education as the area that currently requires the greatest amount of focus, claiming that even though Illinois currently leads the nation in the number of three-year-olds enrolled in preschool programs, the state must do better.
Another key component of Quinn’s SOTS address was a push for a minimum wage increase for Illinois workers, highlighting an area where Bruce Rauner, Quinn’s potential opponent in the upcoming general election, has stumbled in recent weeks. Rauner adamantly opposes increasing the minimum wage and recently expressed his belief that Illinois’ minimum wage should be lowered by one dollar, to the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Governor Quinn’s proposal would raise the minimum wage from $8.25 an hour to $10.00 an hour. Quinn framed his argument for a minimum wage increase in moral terms, remarking that “Our minimum wage workers are doing hard work. They’re putting in long hours. Yet in too many instances, they are living in poverty. That’s not right...This is all about dignity and decency.” However, Quinn also noted the economic benefits of such a policy, citing a Federal Reserve study that found that for every dollar increase in the minimum wage, workers spend an additional $2,800 in their local communities. The governor hit a rhetorical high mark in the speech as he said that “Minimum-wage workers do not admire money in a bank vault. They spend it quickly and locally, a shot in the arm to our Main Street businesses.”
With one of the lowest approval ratings of any governor in the country, Governor Quinn used his State of the State speech to focus on Illinois’ future by detailing the important work ahead, and highlighting his role in achieving these goals. If Governor Quinn can keep the pressure on his Republican rivals by focusing the conversation on issues like raising the minimum wage and early childhood education that enjoy broad popular support, he will have his Republican opponent playing defense on the day of the general election.