Peoria Journal Star

Our View: Quinn making it easy for his GOP opponent

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gov. Pat Quinn visited the Journal Star for his editorial board interview last week, and he was better - more cogent, passionate - than we had seen him in many years. We find few reasons to laugh during a campaign, but he got a giggle when he suggested that his GOP opponent Bill Brady, with his "fairy-tale" budget plans - he has a point there - "will lead our state to nuclear winter."

Alas, the governor is a hard guy to figure.

Not even a week later we learned that Quinn had made a deal with the leaders of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) that would, if signed, prevent the state from laying off any of some 50,000 unionized workers or from closing any facilities where they work if the union finds at least $50 million in other cost-cutting measures, such as furlough days, reduced overtime and scheduled pay hike deferrals. A spokeswoman for the governor said the deal is a two-fer in that it would save taxpayers money and "keep people employed during one of the worst economic downturns in history," through mid-2012.

We're not opposed to either of those outcomes; many of those workers deliver critical services that state government should make every reasonable attempt to preserve. And yet this move is still mystifying, on multiple levels.

First, why take any weapon out of your arsenal in attacking unprecedented deficits? Brady is quite right when he says the current administration "should not agree to anything that limits Illinois' flexibility to manage this catastrophe" or tie any future governor's hands. Indeed, if recent polls are any indication, Quinn may not win, and his successor could then be saddled with what some - including the Chicago Tribune's opinion page - have already labeled a "sellout."

Even if Quinn does prevail, that $50 million amounts to less than four-tenths of one percent of the state's projected $13 billion shortfall. Let's say the parties find savings of triple that; it's still a drop in the bucket. Even if the governor gets the tax increase he wants, layoffs and reduced overtime and furloughs - all the above, plus some more - may have to be in the picture. Do the math. Why handcuff yourself?

Second, we understand why AFSCME would want this deal, we're glad the union seems willing to make concessions (including some $70 million in health care benefits) and one can hardly blame its leaders for looking out for the security of their members - that's their job. But why would any governor hand governing responsibility - in this case the onus of finding and green-lighting budget reductions - over to someone else? Illinoisans elect a governor, not the leadership of AFSCME.

Third, it's worth noting that this agreement arrived in the wake of AFSCME's endorsement of Quinn, opening the door to accusations of a quid pro quo, which both sides deny but which Brady was predictably quick to pounce upon. It "reminds voters of the pay-to-play politics that I seek to end," he said. One would think, following the impeached Rod Blagojevich, that any state CEO would be especially sensitive to that.

Meanwhile, the governor has acknowledged taking his budget director, David Vaught - who negotiated this deal - to his endorsement session with AFSCME, which raises the specter of using government resources for political ends. Quinn insists Vaught was doing this on his "personal time" and that he needed to be around "to give me budget figures that I might need," but that's a weak defense that virtually no one is buying. This is not the first time the lines have been blurred between the governor's campaign and official state business. Quinn the reformer of the last three decades never would have let any of this slide had someone else done it.

Finally, given Brady's public pronouncements, he's about the last man on Earth this union would ever endorse, so Quinn was hardly in danger of losing its support. Has Quinn lost more votes than he's gained by creating this situation?
No two ways about it, this looks bad for the governor. We don't see how this deal can go forward. Moreover, these self-inflicted injuries just allow Brady to coast, as they suck all the oxygen out of the room, deflecting attention from other issues. It doesn't put him on the spot for coming up with a legitimate budget plan. He just has to sit back, say little of substance, and let Quinn make the Republican's case right through Nov. 2. Quinn shouldn't make it so easy on his opponent. More importantly, this does voters who want and deserve to know what the choice is here a disservice.

Again, it makes no sense.