Gov. Quinn struggling with feisty legislature

First week of veto session difficult for governor

October 31, 2011

Kristen McQueary

(Getty/Frank Polich)

With each green light that blinked last week on the General Assembly voting boards approving electricity legislation, Gov. Pat Quinn’s influence with lawmakers seemed to fade to black.

Members of the House and Senate overrode Quinn’s veto of a bill that will raise consumer electricity costs in exchange for an improved power grid, which two of the state’s biggest power companies said will result in fewer failures.

Quinn, the founder of the Citizens Utility Board, a watchdog organization, repeatedly bashed the bill, warning that it would lead to “blockbuster annual rate hikes for consumers and businesses." He frantically marshaled aides from the lieutenant governor’s office, the attorney general’s office and the Illinois Commerce Commission to lobby lawmakers, unsuccessfully, as the veto override marched forward in both chambers.

When voters elected Quinn over Republican Bill Brady by less than one percent of the vote—a margin of victory that took three days to confirm— Democrats said they hoped he would show that he had matured into a decisive and visionary governor.

But if the first week of the fall veto session is any indication, Quinn continues to fumble along a crowd of politicians who are more shrewd and strategic than he is. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton—all Chicago Democrats—and a number of lawmakers statewide have complained of a disengaged governor often scattered in his thoughts and unrealistic in his expectations. Meetings to negotiate bills or policy end without a clear path forward, they said.

“Quinn is not a deal-cutter. He doesn’t like to negotiate. He doesn't know how," said a top Senate aide.

On Thursday, during a meeting Quinn had called with top Democratic and Republican leaders, he raised the prospect of the state’s borrowing money to pay overdue bills for the third time during his administration. Borrowing is an issue legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle have resisted as too unpopular among their members. By mentioning it again—this time tied to a tax-break proposal— Quinn reinforced a perception that he is inflexible on certain issues, according to one attendee who asked not to be named because negotiations are ongoing.

The attendee said the governor’s closest advisers fear he lacks the political instincts to protect himself from legislative leaders who are equally focused on policy and politics. The governor does not face a re-election campaign next year, but the leaders and their members do

"You have to remember: He was elected to clean state government up," said Quinn's spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson. "He spent his lifetime as an outsider.”

Like his predecessor, Quinn often admonishes the legislature publicly. He criticized lawmakers’ support of the original casino bill and accused them of being bribed by campaign contributions on the electricity bill.

Representative Lou Lang, Democrat of Skokie, said the governor’s attacks have backfired. Support that Quinn may have gotten on a revised casino bill, Lang said, evaporated once he took aim at the legislature.

“I like the governor,” Lang said. “I just don’t like how he has handled this issue.”

Most of those who were asked about the governor said Quinn's heart is in the right place. His credentials as an honest person carried him through the 2010 election and still influence lawmakers' feelings about him.

"I think he really cares about the people of Illinois, about people of limited means and education and those are values a lot of us share," said State Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat who works with the Quinn administration on Medicaid spending. "But there isn't a clear, thoughtful path to get from Point A to Point B, and that lack of a comprehensive plan sometimes makes it difficult for us."

The scaled-back casino bill remains in limbo. During meetings this summer with opponents and supporters of casino expansion, Quinn asked questions and listened but didn'tt reveal his demands for changes to the bill until more than four months after it passed and with one week to go before the fall veto session.

One of his revisions could dramatically reduce the state’s ability to raise money from video poker machines. Quinn said he wants to roll back a law that allows towns to reject video poker in their communities. He prefers a higher bar, which would mandate that communities vote for the machines in order to get them.

That change, if it stays in the bill, would unravel a practice that has been under way for two years. Those kinds of reversals infuriate lawmakers accustomed to order and process.

The governor’s aides said he is persistent, and he revisited the bill to ensure communities have more discretion. His tense relationship with the legislature is an indication of “a difficult time in state government,” Anderson said. “The needs are greater than ever and as chief executive, he has to make tough decisions.”

According to Democrat and Republican leaders in Springfield, Quinn declined to be involved in several important bills that moved through the House and Senate this spring.  At one point, Cullerton referred to the governor as “irrelevant” to the budget process. Lang said he left a dozen phone messages with Quinn’s office to bring him into the casino negotiations. But the governor did not make his specific concerns known until after the bill was passed.

Lang and others said the governor is unwilling, or unable, to articulate his vision so they could translate that on paper, in bill form.

Quinn also reversed course on a deal he struck with labor unions. In July, he announced the state had no money to honor contracted pay raises for about 30,000 union employees and he said the legislature had not authorized enough spending.

Two months later, Quinn announced he would close seven state facilities to save money, breaking another promise with organized labor. Quinn said the legislature gave him no choice but to move forward with closures.

Protesters crammed the Capitol Wednesday to show their disapproval. Dan Dunlap, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1133, said he voted for Quinn but was disappointed in his leadership.

“I don’t know why he’s following in Wisconsin’s footsteps of attacking labor,” he said. “It’s wrong.”

Quinn began his career in public life as an outsider. He successfully led a statewide petition drive to reduce the size of the Illinois House from 177 to 118 members in 1980. He founded the Citizens Utility Board in 1983.

He served one term as state treasurer and six years as lieutenant governor. He assumed the governor’s post in January 2009, one month after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s arrest on corruption charges.

“He was always the guy throwing rocks at this place,” said one lobbyist. “Now he’s the guy in charge, and I don’t think he knows what to do.”