SPRINGFIELD — In a speech foreshadowing his 2014 campaign for re-election, Gov. Pat Quinn on Wednesday called on lawmakers to help him enact new gun laws, boost the minimum wage and open up Illinois’ election laws.
The Democrat from Chicago, who is facing a potential primary challenge next year, used the setting of his annual State of the State address to again call on the legislature to overhaul the state’s underfunded pension system.
Although he used the word “pension” just eight times in the 39-minute address, he made it clear that the rising cost of employee benefits is leaving less money to spend on other parts of the state budget.
“Our state is at a critical juncture. The pension squeeze is draining our ability to teach our students. Our children are being shortchanged. And, in the end, that shortchanges our economy,” Quinn said.
Quinn, who delivered his speech with potential primary challenger Attorney General Lisa Madigan sitting just steps away, said he supports a plan that would require local school districts and universities to pay more toward employee pensions and force workers and retirees to choose between reduced cost-of-living increases and health insurance.
“We cannot allow our economic recovery to be held hostage by the pension crisis,” Quinn said.
The sponsor of the pension fix, Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, thanked the governor for embracing the plan.
“This legislation paves the way for us to address pension costs in a fair and constitutional manner,” Cullerton said.
With pension reform expected to be a dominant theme in his budget address, set for March 6, Quinn spent much of his fourth State of the State speech offering up a smorgasbord of initiatives fit for the campaign trail.
Republicans and some Democrats said it was little more than a stump speech aimed at shoring up his base in anticipation of a primary fight.
“By and large I think it was more of a campaign kick-off speech than anything else,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont.
“The governor has a battle within his own party. He’s on the ropes,” added state Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican who is considering another run for governor.
“I thought it was heavy on campaign rhetoric and light on substance,” said state Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline.
On guns, Quinn again said he wants to ban the sale and possession of military-style semi-automatic weapons and he provided his blueprint for complying with a federal court’s decision requiring the state to join the rest of the nation in allowing concealed carry.
His proposal would require applicants to be fingerprinted and would require tougher background checks on certain kinds of gun purchases.
His plan would ban concealed weapons from being carried in many areas.
“We must ensure that guns are kept out of everyday public places because guns don’t belong in our schools, shopping malls or sports stadiums,” he said.
Quinn also wants to boost reporting of mentally ill people in order to assist the state police in screening concealed carry applicants.
He also would require Illinois schools to conduct additional drills to prepare students in the event of an armed attack.
“Our students and teachers can never be too prepared,” Quinn said.
House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, said violent video games also should be addressed.
“I don’t think they’re healthy and I think that should be part of the discussion as well,” Cross said.
Downstate Republicans said they are wary of Quinn’s gun control proposals.
“Let me be clear governor: I will fight you every step of the way to protect the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” said state Rep. Adam Brown, R-Champaign.
Quinn also wants to raise the minimum-wage to $10 an hour, up from $8.25. The move is supported by members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who represent a key constituency for Quinn in the upcoming election.
“Our shared vision for a better Illinois also means we must honor the productivity of our workers,” Quinn said.
Business groups say an increase will kill job creation at a critical time in the state’s recovery from the recession.
Quinn, whose predecessor went to jail on corruption charges, also shined a spotlight on ethics reform, proposing new rules on lawmakers aimed at limiting their ability to vote on issues that might represent a conflict of interest.
“In our Illinois, government belongs to the people, not to the office holders,” Quinn said.
The governor also wants to launch a first-ever online voter registration system. And, he wants an open primary election, in which voters wouldn’t be forced to choose a party when they walk into the polling place.
The proposed election changes come just days after another potential Quinn primary challenger, former White House chief of staff William Daley of Chicago, suggested Illinois eliminate partisan primary elections.
“Our democracy is strongest when more voters raise their voices and the ballot box,” he said.
Quinn, who has made veterans a cornerstone of his political life, unveiled a proposal designed to put military veterans on a faster track to getting jobs in various licensed professions, such as nursing and careers in law enforcement.
He used the death of Tyler Ziegel, a Marine from Metamora to illustrate the need for the General Assembly to make tough decisions. Ziegel was injured in Iraq in 2004 and underwent 59 surgeries before dying in an accident last year.
“If our service members can summon that kind of courage day after day, then surely we can summon political courage in the days to come,” Quinn said.
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