SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Illinois is "moving forward," Gov. Pat Quinn repeatedly declared Wednesday in a State of the State address that offered families and businesses modest tax relief but was almost silent on the looming financial roadblocks that could bring state government to a grinding halt.
He proposed ending a tax on natural gas, saying it would help businesses and families alike. He also called for a new tax credit for families and expansion of an existing credit for companies that hire unemployed veterans. In all, the tax measures would cost state government $300 million a year, Quinn's office estimated.
The Chicago Democrat acknowledged Illinois must find a way to control the ballooning costs of health care and pensions. He did not, however, discuss the depth of the problem or give any hint of what he will propose in what is likely to be a gloomy budget address on Feb. 22.
Instead, Wednesday's 34-minute speech focused squarely on the positive.
"We must build and grow our Illinois economy like never before to keep Illinois moving forward," Quinn told a joint session of the state Senate and House.
Republicans accused him of being irresponsible, both in proposing programs that reduce state revenue and in not speaking more directly to the budget problems that lie ahead.
"We needed something that said, 'We are going to try to get our fiscal house in order. We know we're in trouble,' " said Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka. "And I didn't hear any of that."
Quinn emphasized the need to invest in programs that may create jobs and help the economy. He labeled these programs the "Illinois Jobs Agenda."
His agenda includes ending a utility tax on natural gas, which generated $160 million for the state last year.
"This tax is an unfair, regressive tax that is not based on the ability to pay," Quinn said. "By abolishing it entirely, we can provide targeted tax relief to both consumers and businesses. Illinois will be the only state in the Midwest without a natural gas utility tax on manufacturers, retailers and everyday families."
Quinn's office predicted his proposed "child tax credit" would mean $100 in savings for a typical family of four, and would cost the state $130 million total. Aides did not explain how the credit would work.
The governor's office said the expanded credit for hiring veterans would save businesses between $5 million and $10 million a year. The most recent data on the hiring credit, from 2008-2009, shows just 95 businesses claimed it, saving $79,000.
Quinn proposed a goal of higher education for 60 percent of adults by 2025. Today, he said, only 43 percent are finishing some sort of post-high school education. Quinn asked lawmakers to spend more money on college scholarships, but he did not propose a specific figure.
The address followed a dire report earlier this week that said Illinois' backlog of unpaid bills could nearly quadruple — from $9.2 billion to $34.8 billion — over the next five years unless officials take action. The Civic Federation's report predicts pension and health costs will continue to climb while revenues will drop when the state's temporary income tax increase expires.
Quinn said any pension changes must be "meaningful, constitutional and fair to employees." A major question in Springfield is whether it would be constitutional to reduce benefits for current government workers.
Democrats had little to say about Quinn's speech.
House Speaker Michael Madigan wouldn't comment. Senate President John Cullerton issued a statement urging Quinn to "remain vigilant and constructive" on controlling government costs. Various Democratic lawmakers questioned whether Illinois can afford the governor's proposals but said they would get serious consideration.
One of the warmest reviews came from Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. Whitley said he was happy to see Quinn emphasize job-creation so directly. He said ending the tax on natural gas, if lawmakers would agree, should cut costs for manufacturers. And he said Quinn did nothing wrong by touching so lightly on Illinois budget problems.
"The State of the State is the good speech, the fun speech, the easy speech," Whitley said. "The budget message which will come in three weeks is much harder. I don't expect to hear any good news in the budget message."
Much of the speech was devoted to recapping the highlights of Quinn's three years in office.
He mentioned tougher ethics laws and legalizing civil unions. Illinois jobs are up, and so are overseas sales of Illinois goods. He described the thousands of miles of roads and hundreds of bridges that have been improved under a massive public works program. Businesses are saving money under revamped workers' compensation and unemployment insurance programs.
"We have invested in our state, making it a better place to do business," Quinn said. "And we have invested in the people of Illinois, helping our working families and improving education."
House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, disputed Quinn's assessment of conditions in Illinois and faulted the governor for not addressing problems more directly. He likened the speech to a sports fan discussing fantasy football.
"I felt like I was listening to a game of fantasy government. It's not real," Cross said. "You want the CEO of the state who's been here for three years to get it and he didn't demonstrate that today."
Associated Press writers John O'Connor, Sophia Tareen and Shannon McFarland contributed to this report.
Christopher Wills can be reached at http://twitter.com/chrisbwills