It may be inevitable that a key disappointment in Gov. Pat Quinn's State of the State speech last week stems from its lack of detail for dealing with the state's fiscal problems. The budget and the state of the state are so intrinsically intertwined right now that it is almost impossible to talk about the latter without dealing with the former.
Yet, the governor's budget speech won't take place for a couple of weeks. So, as he prepares for that occasion, here's some advice inspired by the shortcomings last week: Be concrete, in terms of both strength and specificity. One should not expect much more than political banter from any governor's State of the State speech. But the occasion can provide some insight into the policy and legislative priorities of the state's chief executive.
Quinn's version this year was little more than an ineffectual plunge into vapidity that was both sweet and painful to listen to. It's hard not to appreciate the governor's sugary earnestness as he repeatedly spoke of "our Illinois," praised veterans and thanked specific individuals -- including the president of a plumber's local, the hero of the 1981 Reagan assassination attempt, the Republican leader of the Illinois Senate and many others -- who have played or are playing roles in addressing various issues facing the state. And, Quinn deserves sincere praise for his consistent emphasis on the urgency of Illinois' chief crisis, its looming pension debacle.
But it was also clear from the vague platitudes on which the speech was based that the governor had woefully little to offer on what to do.
It was commendable for Gov. Quinn to acknowledge the diversity of players on Illinois' problem-solving stage, but sadly, until a host of special interests come in line -- including leaders of both political parties, labor unions, anti-tax zealots and anyone whose self interest trumps concern for the health of the state as a whole -- none of the state's problems, its dismal financial condition chief among them, will ever be solved.
Quinn lobbed a polite softball on behalf of Senate President John Cullerton's intriguing but conflicted Senate Bill 1. He praised lawmakers for the significant cuts achieved in Medicaid spending. And he cheered what he called reforms on a variety of issues, like workers' compensation, education and health care, where in fact inadequate baby steps hardly represent comprehensive solutions.
We will need more than this three weeks from now. On March 6, we will need to hear how, specifically how, the state will start making good on its unpaid bills. We will need to hear some specific direction -- and a timetable -- for addressing pensions. We will need reassurance that revenues from the unfortunate state income tax at least will be used for what they were intended, and that the tax itself will begin to phase out as promised.
This is, as Quinn said, a tall order, no question about it. No reasonable person with any interest in or affection for Illinois could envy the task facing the governor and, after him, the legislature. But the platitudes are behind us now, and for that matter their time has long since passed. Now comes the time for action. We'll be watching with more than curious interest for the governor's explicit description of what he has in mind.