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State of the State: New Year Signals Time for Budget Action

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WUIS/Illinois Issues

A new legislative session and Gov. Pat Quinn’s first term as the elected governor of Illinois begin this month. While the legislature passed some historic measures during its veto session, little was done to address the state’s gaping budget deficit and crushing backlog of unpaid bills.

Both the lawmakers and the governor need to make some resolutions for the New Year, stick to them and put some solutions in place. 

While Quinn has been no stranger to criticism, from his own party as well as from opponents, he managed to surprise many of his detractors by winning a close race to hang onto his office. 

Former Gov. Jim Edgar, who has supported Quinn’s call for an income tax increase as part of a plan to solve the deficit, says the win could go a long way when it comes to Quinn’s ability to move his legislative agenda. 

“I think it’s a huge advantage to him now that … he won an election. That means a lot when you’re dealing with the legislature. … No matter what they think about you, you’re going to be governor for four years.”

Edgar adds that Quinn has the advantage of coming into a difficult job with two years of experience already under his belt. 

Quinn — perhaps one of the only politicians in Illinois viewed as honest enough to share the top of the ticket with Rod Blagojevich and come out without the stain of corruption — did admirable work as lieutenant governor. Illinois’ Constitution places few responsibilities with the office. It is what the man or woman holding the position makes it. For Quinn, it was a platform for good deeds, such as raising support for military families and creating awareness about the environment.

Those are ideas he has continued to champion as governor. While they are noble causes that should not be abandoned, Quinn needs to start seeing the bigger picture. He has more than once answered difficult questions on issues, such as the budget, by bringing the topic around to those pet causes, leaving reporters and voters scratching their heads about his priorities and plans for the state’s future. 

Heading into the new legislative session, Quinn needs to focus squarely on the budget. Other issues have to take a back seat for a while. Once he tightens his focus, he should bring in a crack team to help overcome the current crisis.

This is just what Adlai Stevenson II, another idealist who lacked some aspects of political savvy, did when he took the office after the 1948 election and was faced with cleaning up corruption. Cynthia Grant Bowman recounts in the biography Dawn Clark Netsch: A Political Lifethat Stevenson recruited a young Abner Mikva, as well as many “nationally recognized” economists and experts, to his staff and cabinet. Netsch, still in law school at the time, was also among his supporters. Bowman writes: “Together with those he had recruited, Stevenson accomplished a great deal over the four years he was governor. … One of [his] most important legacies for Illinois was the network of young people he either brought into or inspired to enter public life.”

Quinn is known to keep a tight circle of people he can trust. But the state’s obstacles are too great to be faced by friends, holdovers and loyalists alone. We need some fresh perspectives. And now that Quinn’s future is certain, he will likely find more applicants willing to rise to the challenges Illinois currently presents. 

Quinn has reportedly asked top appointees for their resignation letters, signaling that this longstanding complaint of Statehouse watchers may be sinking in. 

The perception that Quinn reacts rather than leads has also dogged him throughout his time in office. Quinn’s stances on ethics legislation and tax plans seemed to change hourly in the waning days of last year’s spring legislative session. In all fairness, he was having difficulty finding support from legislators in his own party and seemed to be trying to show that he was open to compromise. But in the end, his behavior came across more like a waffle than an olive branch. 

He also unveils new ideas in a way that does not seem planned. He might blurt something out about a tax plan at an unrelated news conference. As a reporter, I can’t say I mind this, but it doesn’t seem to help him move his agenda. Reporters who follow up on the announcements find there is no political appetite for them in the legislature. 

“Sometimes, I think he would say things, and people would react, and then he’d be surprised, and then he’d change. You don’t want to keep changing your position,” Edgar notes. 

Once Quinn gets a solid team in place, he needs to come up with a realistic budget plan and stick to it. If changes are needed, make them deliberately so it is clear they are the result of negotiations and not flip-flopping. Float preliminary ideas to lawmakers personally, or through staff members, instead of in headlines, so not every dud has to see daylight. 

“I think it gives him a great opportunity to almost start with a clean slate in some ways. And learn from his mistakes. … We all make mistakes and hopefully we all grow, and hopefully he’ll grow. And he’ll learn that maybe some of the things he did the first two years, maybe he ought to do different. And now he’s got a great chance to do them different,” Edgar says. 

Quinn did not get much of a honeymoon period when he first took office. But at the start of his new term, he may get a short respite with the understanding that he must move on from mistakes of the past and take ownership of the office. Just as he may now be able to command more control over state government as the elected governor, the buck will now also stop with him.

As Edgar characterized the situation: “Now it’s his mess. It’s no longer Blagojevich’s mess. … Now whatever happens, it’s on his watch.” 

Quinn should grab the chance to work with both parties and start building a recovery plan. However, he can’t do it on his own, and the legislature needs to make some changes, as well. 

Speaking realistically about the budget crisis would be a good start. Neither voters nor the state economy would tolerate a plan that relies solely on cuts or new taxes to get the state out of the deficit. Some Republicans call for such cuts as selling state planes that may have symbolic importance but will do little to fill the gaping budget hole. Some Democrats say spending is not the problem, while failing to point out that any tax increase discussed so far would not bring in enough cash, either. 

Lawmakers have to stop playing politics with math and willfully ignoring the scope of the problem. 

Rushville Democratic Sen. John Sullivan, who chairs a Senate appropriation committee and sat on the Senate Deficit Reduction Committee last year, says legislators should do more to explain Illinois’ finances to constituents back home, though it may be a difficult sell. 

“It’s a tough environment out there. People are dissatisfied both at the state and the federal level. The economy is still just barely chugging along. … When I hear people say, ‘Don’t raise my taxes,’ and I hear other people say, ‘Don’t cut services,’ my response is, you can’t have it both ways,” he says.

Sullivan thinks legislators should explain the reality and possible outcomes of both cuts and tax increases without a political spin and then listen to their constituents. “We can sit here and have our deficit reduction committees … but until the everyday person, living and working in their communities, until they realize they personally understand what the consequences are, all the other stuff doesn’t really sink in.” 

Edgar agrees that it will take both cuts and a tax increase, as well as the cooperation of both parties. “I’m going to encourage Democrats and Republicans to sit down and try to get along. … If that happens, I’m much more optimistic that they’ll figure out some compromise.”

He adds that Republican or Democrat, all Illinoisans should pull for Quinn on some level. “I’m very hopeful that he’ll be successful,” Edgar says. “We all have a lot vested in a governor doing well in this state regardless of his politics.”

Lawmakers were hesitant to take up any controversial issues before the election, but now Sullivan warns that the time for action on the budget is at hand.

“We didn’t get in this situation over- night. We’re not going to get out of it overnight. But the fact is, every day that we wait, we are digging ourselves deeper and deeper and deeper into this hole. And the sooner that we make the decision, whether it be cuts or taxes or a combination of both, once we make that decision, then we’re going to be able to start digging our way out. But we keep delaying.”

While lawmakers should speak in realistic terms about the budget picture instead of repeating useless party lines, voters must resolve to be informed, as well.

People need to realize that they should likely expect fewer services from their financially strapped state, especially if they cannot support a tax increase. They should also know that some cuts will have to come in education, social services and health care — areas that most people care about and that make up the bulk of state spending. 

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno summed up well the need for an informed electorate: “The problem we have is when people aren’t engaged, and they make up their mind on a 30-second commercial. And then they wake up and say, ‘Oh how did we get this kind of governance?’ It’s because you let it happen.”

 

Heading into the new session, Quinn needs to focus squarely on the budget. Other issues have to take a back seat for a while.

Illinois Issues, January 2011

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