The State of the State message is usually upbeat, a pep talk about what needs to be done.
And 2014 is an election year, so it’s no surprise that Gov. Pat Quinn spent a lot of his speech bragging about his resumé and the rest of it urging the legislature to adopt his ideas. So, no one should have expected Quinn to detail the state’s woes. Instead, his message Wednesday sounded more like a campaign speech and virtually ignored the python in the room.
Quinn asked legislators to help him enact new gun laws, boost the minimum wage and open up Illinois’ election laws. He also asked for support on a recent House bill that would fund infrastructure projects but also waste money on unneeded and unnecessary pork barrel projects.
But Quinn spent only a little bit of time addressing the state’s biggest problems: the unfunded pension obligation and backlog of unpaid bills. Quinn did throw his support behind Senate Bill 1, a two-part proposal by Senate President John Cullerton.
Cullerton’s bill would reduce pension benefits, and if that was ruled unconstitutional, then give state employees the choice between reduced cost-of-living increases and health insurance. Cullerton has said his proposal would make the state’s six pension systems solvent by 2043 and reduce the unfunded pension obligation by between $66 billion and $88 billion.
The Cullerton proposal may not be the final answer, but it is a start.
But Quinn’s speech was mostly happy talk in a state that is in dreadful financial shape. Even if the General Assembly manages to address the unfunded pension mess, the budget could still contain more spending than the state brings in. The state’s bond ratings have been reduced to the point where a $500 million bond issue was recently delayed.
And it’s not clear that Democrats in the General Assembly, or Quinn, understand the seriousness of the state’s financial problems. Quinn talked about those issues briefly Wednesday, then signed a bill Thursday that includes some wasteful spending.
The Senate approved and Quinn signed a bill that appropriates $2.1 billion to pay for a variety of projects.
Some of the funds were appropriated in last year’s budget and never spent. Some of the funds are for much-needed construction projects that will add jobs, and others are to hire front-line workers at the Department of Children and Family Services.
So some of the spending is necessary and legitimate. And some of it isn’t.
Tucked inside the bill are funds for a basketball hall of fame in Danville, new positions for middle managers in state agencies, a new children’s museum in Springfield, a new museum in Southern Illinois dedicated to the region’s fluorspar miners, renovation of a baseball field, a new VFW hall and the installation of bike racks.
The so-called “sweeteners” were added to attract votes to the bill. In other words, legislators can’t see the value of road construction and additional child abuse investigators unless they get something for themselves.
The state is basically broke. Broke states shouldn’t waste money on halls of fame, museums, baseball fields or bicycle racks.
Spending money the state doesn’t have on projects it doesn’t need will not return Illinois to a solid financial base.