Quinn's bad news budget: 'Our rendezvous with reality has arrived'

Gov. Pat Quinn presenting his state budget in Springfield today. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn today delivered a bad news budget speech, calling for prison closures, layoffs and cutbacks to health care for the poor.

"This budget contains truths you may not want to hear," Quinn said. "But these are truths that you do need to know. And I believe you can handle the truth."

Quinn said too many governors and lawmakers have spent too much over the past 35 years.

"Today, our rendezvous with reality has arrived," Quinn said.

The governor focused the early portion of his speech on the need to reform state worker pension systems. Quinn blamed previous governors and General Assemblies for not funding the pension system over decades, pointing out that pension payments now take up 15 percent of the state's main checking account as a result.

A panel of lawmakers has an April 17 deadline to submit recommendations on reforms to reduce costs.

"I want to repeat: everything is on the table for our pension working group," Quinn said.

Quinn also talked about the need to reform the state's Medicaid system to save it. Demand is increasing, the state is behind on paying its bills and the system could collapse, Quinn aides have said.

The governor tried a different approach: instead of laying out specifics, he suggested he'll work with lawmakers to come up with solutions. This applied to pension reform, Medicaid reform and finding new revenue by closing corporate loopholes.

Quinn also spoke from prepared remarks, as he did three weeks ago during his State of the State speech, instead of riffing off an outline. That less structured approach had drawn criticism in past years as rambling and lengthy and unfocused.

Republicans criticized what they said is more spending in the budget. Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka applauded Quinn for offering specific budget cuts.

“But taken in totality, today’s budget proposal amounts to a hodgepodge of ideas that are not thought through, and that will do little to address the state’s mountain of unpaid bills," Topink said in a statement. "Sadly, the numbers don’t add up – and in truth, appropriations from the General Funds are up more than $500 million over the current budget."

The top two Democrats praised their fellow Chicagoan, Quinn, for putting forth what they viewed as a balanced budget proposal rather than following up last year’s blueprint that was $1.4 billion or more out of whack.

Madigan said Quinn delivered a “strong message” that pensions and Medicaid funding must be tackled, calling it a “legitimate request” that lawmakers stay in session until solutions are  found.

Cullerton called it time to “take the next leap forward in comprehensive pension reforms that control costs while preserving the constitutional rights of current employees and retirees.”

“Unlike Indiana and Wisconsin, we intend to work with unions to accomplish this goal,” Cullerton said.

Noting Quinn presented “tough choices,” Cullerton warned the costs of inaction on pensions and Medicaid far outweigh the downsides because their growing costs will eat away money that could be used for other needs.

The speech also did not mention the expansion of casino gambling. Quinn stopped a major casino expansion plan last year, denying Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel a city casino.

The governor announced several prison closures and also consolidating 20 Illinois State Police telecommunications centers. The savings will allow the state to train two new cadet classes of state police, Quinn said.