Gov. Quinn Wants To Double Earned Income Tax Credit, Increase Minimum Wage
by Brian Mackey, with additional reporting from Illinois Public Media
Doubling the income tax credit and raising the minimum wage were among Gov. Pat Quinn’s plans in his State of the State Address Wednesday.
Quinn's speech was pretty much can be expected from a man fighting to keep his job despite some of the lowest approval ratings of any governor in America.
He laid out a list of proposals that seem finely honed to appeal to Democratic voters: increasing the minimum wage, doubling a tax credit for the working poor, and requiring at least two days of sick time for all employees.
"We need to help our workers, especially our single parents, avoid that awful choice: dragging themselves from a sick bed to work, or losing a day's pay -- or maybe even their job," Quinn said.
Quinn also called for a big expansion of the grants that help low-income people go to college. In recent years, Illinois has run out of money and had to stop giving out so-called MAP grants midway through the school year.
Then, there's the "Birth to Five Initiative," aimed at helping low-income children from the womb through kindergarten.
"Study after study has shown that high-quality early childhood education provides the best return of any public investment we can make," Quinn said.
Beyond the wish list, Quinn spent large parts of the speech trying to put a shine on his term in office.
The 2014 State of the State comes precisely five years after lawmakers ousted Rod Blagojevich and elevated Quinn. The former lieutenant governor reminded listeners of the dark state of the state back then.
"We had one former Governor in jail, and another on the way to jail," he said. "And our financial house was on fire, set ablaze by decades of mismanagement and an utter lack of willingness to make the tough calls."
In Quinn's telling, Illinois has made significant strides since then: repairing roads and bridges, legalizing marriage for same-sex couples, and overhauling the badly underfunded pension systems. Because of that and more, Quinn repeatedly hammered one argument.
""Illinois is making a comeback," he said. That is not a view shared by the four Republicans who want Quinn's job.
"We have the second-highest unemployment in the nation. We've lost over 200,000 jobs in the last five years. This governor just doesn't get it," said Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington), a candiate for governor.
His fellow senator Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale) -- also a candidate for governor -- dismissed Quinn's speech as pure politics.
"It's a Gov. Quinn populist re-election speech," he said. "He doesn't face up to the real crises that are out there. He doesn't tell us what he's going to do with the 67 percent income tax increase."
The question of a tax increase is going to be a big deal in Springfield this year, perhaps the biggest.
When income taxes were raised from three to five percent a few years ago, it was designed to begin automatically rolling back at the end of this year. But that's going to leave a huge hole in the state budget.
On the one hand, the criticism about not enough budget talk in the State of the State may not be entirely fair. The governor will give a separate speech on his budget proposal later this session, February 19th.
But since so much of the policy of state government is expressed through how it spends money, figuring out the tax increase is kind of a big deal. Dillard put it even more bluntly.
"The budget is very much a foot on the throat to economic development in the state of Illinois," he said.
Urbana Democratic State Representative Naomi Jakobsson agrees with Governor Pat Quinn on a number of his goals, including a plan calling for twice the amount of Monetary Award Program grants for college-bound students.
But Jakobsson said she wants to know more about Quinn's approach.
"I'm always anxious to hear that we're going to do what we have to make college more affordable and MAP Grants certainly help," she said. "But I want to know how we're going to fund it, and hope he addresses that in the budget address."
Quinn’s address fell on the anniversary of his predecessor’s removal from office. Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is now serving a federal prison sentence for corruption.
State Senator Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) was part of a House committee that had recommended impeaching Blagojevich in 2009.
While Governor Quinn touted his efforts to rebuild the state since he took office, Rose said he hasn’t done enough.
“Pat Quinn came in with a very tough job," he said. "The question is five years later, are we far enough long? We still have the five billion dollar backlog of bills despite the largest tax increase in state history. Again, I go back to the speech, and rather than hearing this fantasy land stuff, I’d rather just say, ‘Ok, here’s how we’re going to finish off paying these bills.’”
Rose says he wished the governor focused more of his speech on working with lawmakers to find solutions to Illinois’ unemployment rate.
Much of what happens in the Capitol this spring will be overshadowed by the tax question. And it could make or break Quinn's proposals -- most of which will cost the state more money it doesn't have.
Beyond the financial question, Quinn's proposals will face challenges on their own merits.
Take the minimum wage increase. The last time Illinois hiked it, it had the highest rate in the Midwest -- $8.25 an hour.
Now Quinn wants to see it raised to at least $10 an hour. It's become a signature issue for Democrats across the country, who argue people willing to work shouldn't have to live in poverty.
But Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said that's conflating two different problems -- the minimum wage and a living wage.
"For the most part, minimum wage work is for young people, for college students, for people who are looking for building a resume. It's not (for people who are) supporting a family," he said.
That is representative of the economic arguments you're going to hear again and again this year from the governor's political opponents.
No matter what Quinn says in his speeches, the fact remains that the fortunes of top politicians are in large part tied to the state of the economy while they're in office.
On that score, Quinn points out that Illinois' unemployment rate - 8.6 percent - has come down significantly from the depths of the Great Recession. But it's still one of the highest rates in the country.
Realities like that are difficult for any policy program - let alone a speech - to overcome.