Case for state comeback not fully there yet

Written By By Mark Brown Posted: 03/03/2014, 10:28am

Gov. Pat Quinn, who has played the Comeback Kid more than once in his long political career, says the state of Illinois is in the midst of a comeback of its own.

If Quinn is going to avoid having his fifth State of the State speech turn out to be his last, he’s going to need to convince a beaten-down Illinois electorate the comeback is real.

That could be a tough sell to a public that has been told over and over again for several years now just how terrible a place Illinois has become to live, work and do business.

Illinois’ status as an economic bottom-feeder is a dominant campaign theme of all four Republican candidates for governor, each of whom says he can spark the turnaround.

On Wednesday, Quinn started making his case the turnaround is already underway, if only you take a closer look and remember where we started.

Sure, Illinois has the highest unemployment rate in the Midwest. But the governor notes Illinois has led the Midwest in new jobs created since last May.

Yes, Illinois was projected just a month ago to be dead last in job growth in 2014, as his opponents stress. But the same ratings agency that made that projection just bumped the state 10 slots higher to 40th place, citing stronger than anticipated year-end economic data that “suggest momentum is strong” going into 2014.

We’re also left with dueling interpretations in which the Republicans say median household income is lower than when Quinn took office while the governor emphasizes it’s on the uptick.

Inevitably, though, if this election indeed revolves around the state’s economy, and that seems likely at this point, it will come down to how Illinoisans perceive what’s going on in their own lives — whether they’re getting ahead, falling behind or treading water.

Most of Quinn’s comeback claim is based not on data but on his overall efforts to help the state recover from what he called the “unprecedented triple crisis of government corruption, economic collapse and financial instability.”

That was the heavy load Quinn inherited exactly five years ago to the day from Rod Blagojevich, he reminds us in case anybody has forgotten what he dramatically referred to as “Illinois’ darkest moment.”

I think the governor makes some valid points about the progress the state has made under his administration — from finally addressing its pension liability problems to reducing its backlog of unpaid bills to rebuilding the state’s infrastructure.

As you know, I also give the governor high points for supporting gay marriage in Illinois, which none of the GOP candidates would have signed into law. But I’m not sure how much of a factor social issues will be in this year’s election given voter unrest on money matters.

Quinn’s re-election campaign provided the unspoken subtext for Wednesday’s speech, probably the most well-delivered and coherent of his State of the State addresses, not that he had ever set the bar particularly high.

Yet Quinn’s remarks contained evidence he remains tone deaf to what the business community wants to hear.

The governor said he’ll establish a Small Business Advocate to examine how state policies and proposals impact the state’s small businesses, then said he wants to require those companies to pay a higher minimum wage and to provide their employees with sick leave — both of which would probably vault right to the top of their immediate concerns.

Quinn also touted a now two-year-old reform of the state’s workers-compensation system, while his opponents are all out there on the campaign trail making hay of the fact that workers-comp costs remain at the top of business’ list of concerns.

Quinn emphasized he wants to reduce the fee new businesses pay the state to register as a limited liability corporation — from $500 to $39. But that would surely be a minor consideration for a company trying to weigh the other costs of doing business in this state.

At the same time, the governor continued to avoid revealing his plans for the temporary income tax increase he signed into law, which is very much on the minds of a business community that would probably prefer for it to expire on schedule as most of the Republicans are promising.

I’d love to pick up a national news magazine some day and read about Illinois, the Comeback State. Pat Quinn still has his work cut out if he’s going to be the leader who takes us there.


Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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