SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Gov. Pat Quinn boosted his populist credentials on Wednesday as he looks toward a 2014 re-election bid, calling for tougher conflict of interest controls on lawmakers, a 20 percent increase in the minimum wage to $10 per hour and a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition feeders.
In his annual address to a joint session of the General Assembly, Quinn proposed prohibiting lawmakers from voting on issues where they have a conflict of interest, urging the Legislature to impose the same kind of ethics requirements on itself that it previously approved for judges and administration officials in a state that has seen its last two governors jailed on corruption charges.
Quinn made only scattered references to the state's most pressing problem — a stifling public-employee pension deficit, but the squeeze it puts on other government spending was an undercurrent throughout the governor's fifth State of the State address. Quinn pointedly named Senate President John Cullerton's latest legislation that includes a fallback plan if the first is declared unconstitutional as "the best vehicle to get the job done."
"Do we want, in the years to come, a prosperous Illinois where working people continue to have good jobs, where businesses thrive, and where all our children have a world-class education?" Quinn asked. "Or do we want to stop the progress and watch our economic recovery stall?"
Elevated to the job after his former running mate, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was impeached and removed from office before beginning a 14-year federal prison term for political corruption, Quinn said it's time to bolster reforms that created the state's first-ever limits on campaign financing.
The ban on what he called "conflict of interest" voting is an idea that Quinn said he first broached nearly 40 years ago with support of more than 600,000 voters signing a petition. It's something more than half the states have already adopted. Quinn argued that the courts and executive branch are "regulated all over" but that a new law should be approved governing the ethical conduct of legislators.
"With this reform, we can keep moving toward a state government that always puts the people first, and a government that tackles the tough issues, no matter how hard," Quinn said.
But Rikeesha Phelon, a spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, questioned whether the plan would be redundant. She said state law already addresses conflict-of-interest voting and said legislative ethics law is "explicit in that regard."
There were few other direct challenges in a speech traditionally reserved for a governor to highlight his accomplishments in the past year. He trumpeted job creation, a Medicaid overhaul and the closure of 54 state facilities to save money, workers' compensation reform, clean water and infrastructure improvements.
Other new ideas included Quinn's announcement that he signed an executive order Wednesday ordering licensing agencies to consider military training in helping veterans get certification and jobs in specialized fields. He announced a partnership with the University of Illinois to create a Chicago lab where companies can learn new technologies and computer software. And he called for a law allowing voters to participate in primary elections for one political party or another without making that choice public.
A prepared statement from Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, released after the speech focused on Quinn's remarks on the $96 billion pension problem and thanked the chief executive for his endorsement of Cullerton's legislation.
"It is time that we put aside partisanship and entrenched opinions in pursuit of bigger and broader goals — doing the right thing for the future of this state," Cullerton said.
Cullerton's legislation incorporates a House plan that failed to gather enough support for a vote in the final days of the last General Assembly in early January. It requires higher contributions by employees to their retirement plans and offers less-generous post-career benefits. Cullerton tags onto it his plan that he believes would survive a court challenge which offers employees a choice between compounded annual cost-of-living increases in benefits or long-term health insurance coverage.