Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn today called on lawmakers to raise the minimum wage, ban assault weapons, allow online voter registration in an annual State of the State speech that sounded a lot like the launch of his 2014 re-election campaign.
Returning to the populist notes that have defined his political career, Quinn laid out a series of choices in a 13-page speech.
"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 told the House and Senate. "Or do we want to stop the progresss and watch our economic recovery stall?"
Quinn wants Illinois' minimum wage to increase from $8.25 to $10 an hour over the next four years. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, but Illinois' rate has been higher for years. Business groups are likely to oppose such a change.
The Democratic governor also reiterate his support for gay marriage.
Quinn called for a statewide ban on assault weapons and the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines. He wants to strengthen background checks and require gun owners to report lost or stolen guns to avoid so-called "straw purchasers."
The governor also offered some of what he wants as the state moves toward allowing conceal carry following a federal appellate ruling that tossed out the state's long standing ban.
"Of course, we must abide with the second amendment. But there is no place in our state for military-style assault weapons designed for rapid fire at human targets at close range," he said. "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."
Elections also was a theme as the governor seeks to allow voters to register online. That could draw criticism from Republicans, who often cry foul about Democratic voting efforts in Chicago.
Quinn also revisited a proposal he has long supported: Asking lawmakers to pass legislation allowing for an open primary in which voters would not have to declare their political party before casting a ballot.
The idea is to increase voter participation, and it comes as Democrats and Republicans alike have begun to shift their focus to the 2014 governor's race. One of Quinn's potential Democratic rivals, former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, recently suggested that Illinois do away with partisan primary elections.
Quinn hopes to seize on a new legislature that may be more willing to consider the idea. In 2010, he tried to push the issue by using his amendatory veto power to rewrite a bill to allow voters to declare their party affiliation privately, but the attempt was rebuffed by legislators.
Political parties historically have opposed open primaries because the elections act as a form of membership drive. By requiring voters to declare a political affiliation in order to vote in primaries, they can create voter lists used to drive fundraising and guide get-out-the-vote efforts.
Quinn also touched on the state's budget woes, specifically the growing pension debt that is pegged at almost $97 billion. Quinn contends that while a lot has been done to turn around the state's economy, it will never fully recover unless legislators pass sweeping reforms to bring the retirement system out of the red.
Quinn has been unsuccessfully pushing since placing it at the top of his priority list during last year's speech.
The governor has backed various proposals, most recently throwing his support behind hybrid legislation sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago. The measure is an attempt to combine proposals put forth by legislators in the House and the Senate, which have had differing ideas on how to tackle the problem.
Cullerton has said he wants a vote on the measure as soon as possible, but acknowledged it may take time to build support. Those efforts may get a boost next month, when Quinn is expected to lay out his budget plan, which the administration has already warned will include cuts given the pressure pensions have put on spending priorities.
Quinn's quest to boost the minimum wage comes right out of the Democratic playbook of his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, while wooing blue-collar labor at the same time. The two Blagojevich campaigns for governor used the minimum wage as a fruitful way to woo the hearts of the state's minimum wage earners through basic pocketbook politics, often underscoring the point while on the stump in minority and working-class neighborhoods.
The issue fell into a Democratic agenda when Blagojevich, the first Democratic governor in a quarter century, entered office with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Only months after he won election, Blagojevich pressed forward with his campaign pledge and passed increases that boosted the minimum wage at that time from $5.15 to $6.50 an hour by 2005, the year before he ran for re-election.
After winning re-election, he pushed through more increases that gradually pushed the state's minimum wage to current levels.
In his own 2010 campaign, Quinn said Illinois' minimum wage should be increased every year to reflect the rising cost of living. The position put him sharply at odds with Republican challenger Bill Brady, a Bloomington senator who dismissed Quinn's campaign position as "populist demagoguery."
Brady initially supported lowering the minimum wage if he beat Quinn and the state rate remained higher than the federal rate—a posture that prompted Quinn's campaign to contend Brady wanted to "turn back the clock." Eventually, Brady said the state minimum wage should hold steady to let the federal minimum wage catch up.
The speech marked Quinn's fourth State of the State address since assuming office after lawmakers impeached and removed ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is serving a 14-year sentence in a Colorado prison following his conviction on federal corruption charges.
Quinn had been out of public sight for nearly a week as he wrote and rehearsed the speech. The governor once again used a teleprompter after his 2010 off-the-cuff address drew criticism as being rambling and unfocused.