Tired of shouldering the blame for the state's continued budget mess, Gov. Pat Quinn on Wednesday invited lawmakers to join him in cleaning up financial problems he contended were decades in the making.
The Democratic chief executive enumerated the long-standing challenges: too much money is spent on public worker pensions and health care for the poor, and too many loopholes have been carved into the state's tax code for businesses.
Instead of spelling out specific solutions, however, Quinn suggested that the state wait for task forces to complete their work.
"Too many governors and members of the General Assembly have clung to budget fantasies rather than confronting hard realities," Quinn said during his annual budget speech at the Capitol. "Today, our rendezvous with reality has arrived."
The approach of attempting to put the heat on lawmakers ignored a political reality — this is the one time a decade when all 177 lawmakers are up for election and running in new districts. And while the governor called for bipartisanship, Republicans noted they're running on a map drawn by Democrats to eliminate as much of the opposition as possible.
Quinn garnered mostly praise from fellow Democrats. House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, stuck to the theme of bipartisanship. But given the difficulty of cutting pensions, benefits and jobs of politically active state workers during an election year, Madigan wasn't predicting a quick resolution.
"I'm prepared to spend the summer in Springfield," Madigan said on public television's "Illinois Lawmakers." "Springfield's a nice town in July and August."
To some extent, the governor was darned either way. If Quinn threw out a bunch of specific demands to lawmakers, he likely would have been pilloried. If he didn't throw out specifics, he risked being labeled as a leader who didn't want to lead.
Quinn chose a middle path, detailing the closings of prisons, mental health centers and social service offices but deferring on the twin pressures of pension and Medicaid reform. The governor said that without major changes, the Medicaid program could collapse, and the pension systems will require so much money that funding for education, health care and public safety would suffer.
Many at the Capitol liked Quinn's blunt assessment of the state's money woes, but his proposals are far from a done deal. While Quinn estimates the state will have $33.9 billion to spend next year, House and Senate lawmakers are set to land on their own figure within the next week. Quinn wants to set aside more money for early childhood education, college scholarships for students and veterans programs, but lawmakers will have their own priorities.
Quinn called on small groups of lawmakers to work with his office to find solutions to Medicaid and pensions, and suggested lawmakers do the same on closing business tax loopholes. It was an approach embraced by many Democrats.
"Now it is up to us in the next coming months, as the Legislature, to do our job, and that is to put in those details," said Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, a budget expert. "This time around … he didn't add all that hyperbole and make false promises and talk about what must be done or how it's going to be done. So I like his collaborative approach."
Also included on the list are prisoner halfway houses, child abuse centers and human service offices throughout the state, proposals that crossed party boundaries rather than almost singularly targeting Republican districts for shutdowns, as the governor has before.
Still, Republican Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, who ran against Quinn in 2010 and is a member of the legislative group examining pensions, said he's concerned that the governor's proposed facility closings would harm pension negotiations that already have begun."It's going to take employee participation to solve these problems in the area of pensions, and to throw this out at this point in time, I'm just concerned about how those representing employees are going to react," Brady said. Tribune reporter Peter Frost contributed.