By Pat Hughes
Governor Quinn last week had the unpleasant task of reporting on the state of the state, as he is required to do by law.
There were two possible courses the Governor could take in this speech. He could treat Illinoisans as grownups, tell them the hard truth about the disastrous condition of their state, especially its public sector, and make tough and realistic proposals to start to turn Illinois around. Or he could tell a fake, happy story, fudge the facts, avoid unpleasant details, leave out as much critical bad news as possible, and say things are good and getting better.
It is disappointing, but not surprising, that Governor Quinn went with the latter. After all, he is running for reelection, and if the voters were focused on the real record he would have a tough time keeping his job.
The two recurring mantras in Governor Quinn’s speech were “Illinois is making a comeback” and “we’re getting the job done.” These vague, pretty sound bites are false and intentionally misleading. Illinois is not making a comeback, as the objective numbers show here and here. Our state is trapped in a cycle of high taxes, high unemployment, an exodus of people and business from the State, the lowest bond rating in the nation, a hostile business climate, and almost $100 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. Governor Quinn and his fellow politicians in Springfield are not getting any “job done”—at least not any job that is good for the hardworking citizens and taxpayers of Illinois.
Just look at a few of the specific passages from his speech. Governor Quinn invoked natural disasters, then shifted to man-made disasters caused by “greedy and corrupt financiers,” all the way back in 2008-09. Of course, the Governor failed to mention that virtually every other state in the Union has made a far stronger recovery than Illinois has. The manifest failure of the last five years is apparent in all relevant statistics. The only explanation for this comparatively bad performance is another man-made disaster Governor Quinn does not mention: bad public policy. Governor Quinn and the super-majority party in Springfield have unchecked authority, and they must take the responsibility for their failures.
Quinn also said that Illinois is fighting corruption with a new ethics code. The Chicago Tribune’s investigation of Speaker Mike Madigan’s web of patronage showed that Illinois government is far from ethical in its routine operation. Yet Attorney General Lisa Madigan has only prosecuted fourteen cases for public corruption, only two of which were for substantial fraud. It is (dirty) business as usual in Illinois. Governor Quinn’s vaunted ethics code is accomplishing nothing.
Governor Quinn touts “comprehensive pension reform” but only speaks in the vaguest generalities: “We stopped the bleeding. We turned the corner.” He really doesn’t dare to get into any detail. For example, the pension shortfall is merely being reduced to 2011 levels, which were already unsustainable. Far from being a real reform, it actually makes the problem worse—for taxpayers but not for public sector employees. For them, their COLAs are not means tested, and they can still retire in their late 50s with full benefits. The taxpayers are paying a larger share of their retirement funding, and pension payments are given a priority over all other government spending. The government of Illinois is in effect a pay and benefits machine for its employees, at taxpayer expense, and all other functions of government are secondary. But Governor Quinn didn’t tell us that in his speech.
Governor Quinn’s claims about progress in job creation are especially evasive. He claims, “Since the recovery began in 2010 Illinois added 280,000 private sector jobs.” A more meaningful statistic is that Illinois is projected to have the lowest job growth out of all the 50 states in 2014: Dead last in the nation, that’s the spin-free reality. Governor Quinn claims that unemployment is at its lowest in five years. That is not correct, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Further, Illinois unemployment rate is much higher than the national average.
If a corporate CEO made a speech to shareholders and investors as divorced from reality as Governor Quinn’s speech was, he would be held accountable. Unfortunately, we hold our elected officials to a much lower standard of integrity. And that’s on us. The Governor holds a position of public trust. We should force him to be fully and bluntly truthful as a matter of course, as a duty. He should not tell fairy tales about the condition of Illinois, which he knows are false, and which everyone else knows are false. When the Governor makes a farce out of his duty to report on the state of Illinois, the proper response should be outrage. But Illinois citizens are so beaten down and cynical, they don’t expect anything else from politicians. They shrug it off, and believe it cannot ever be better. And perpetuating that cynicism and hopelessness is possibly the worst offense inflicted by Governor Quinn’s speech.
But it can get better. And it will, if enough of us are ready and willing to hold Governor Quinn accountable.
Let’s start today. Contact the Governor and your State Legislators now and demand they start getting the job done by passing true pension reform.