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Pat Quinn faces Illinois' enormous financial and ethics problems

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 4, 2009 - It's been less than a week since Patrick Quinn became governor of Illinois and the question continues to be asked: Can a guy who spent his entire career banging his head against the wall of power know what to do now that somebody has opened the door and invited him inside?

The consummate outsider in a state where insiders rule, Quinn long has cast himself as a nice guy who wanted to do the people's work. He spent many a Sunday afternoon -- the timing chosen because it is traditionally a slow news day -- giving sparsely attended press conferences to denounce some outrage or another by the established political leadership.

Now he has the keys to the executive mansion (where he will actually live) and the list of state needs is long and difficult to prioritize. The following are some of the biggest crises facing the new governor:

The Budget Crisis

Estimates of the state's budget gap start at $2 billion and go up from there. It could be as much as $5 billion when you include the unpaid bills that continue to pile up, primarily bills owed to health care providers who have been stiffed for months.

Quinn admitted in his first post-inaugural press conference -- a very well-attended one -- that even he doesn't know the actual number. Quinn has asked the Legislature to give him more time to figure it out by delaying the governor's annual budget address, originally scheduled for Feb. 18, by one month.

Jim Duffett, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Better Health Care, believes that President Barack Obama could help. The federal stimulus bill being debated includes $127 billion for health care. Getting a share of that federal cash infusion could take some of the pressure off of the state budget.

"When the economic stimulus plan passes, the federal government will be doing 85 percent of the heavy lifting" on state health care spending, Duffett said. He estimates that more than $1 billion of the state's deficit is past-due bills owed to health care providers.

Charles N. Wheeler III, who teaches public affairs reporting at University of Illinois at Springfield and is a long-time chronicler of Illinois politics, said he doesn't see a way for the state to climb out of its budget hole without some form of new revenue. And, although Quinn has been guarded about his position on raising taxes, "he's not going to lie to people like Blagojevich who [consistently refused to raise taxes then] cooks the books, uses questionable financial maneuvers and continues to spend without raising the money to pay for it," he said.

The Ethics Crisis

While he was still lieutenant governor, Quinn appointed a 15-member Illinois Reform Commission led by former Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins. It carries the lofty mission of, as its name suggests, reforming a state that has proven immune to reform in the past.

Hanke Gratteau, former Chicago Tribune managing editor/news, is a member of the commission. She said she believes more transparency in government, the planned subject of the commission's Feb. 5 hearing, is the key to better government.

"Secrecy is corruption's best friend," she said.

Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, which advocates for campaign finance reforms, said she believes Quinn might be the right man for the job of finally fixing Illinois' image as a pay-to-play state.

"There is a public mood out there of frustration and anger, a deep desire for change. I think if Gov. Quinn -- I'm still getting used to saying that -- can marshal that and use the bully pulpit effectively while at the same time communicating to the people in the Legislature that this is a case of good government being good politics, I think he can make a huge difference," she said.

The Image Crisis

With one former governor, George Ryan, already serving a 6 1/2 year sentence for political corruption and another, Rod Blagojevich, impeached, kicked out of office and facing a federal trial for alleged corruption, the state has become a national laughingstock. Changing that could be Job One for the nascent governor.

Quinn faces two priorities, Wheeler said, "the state's financial condition and the loss of public faith in government. I don't think you can solve the first without somehow restoring the second."

Quinn's reform commission is one way to do that. Another is to demonstrate that state leaders can work together.

He started that in his first week with a meeting of the so-called "constitutionals," the state's top elected officials, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Comptroller Dan Hynes and Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, all of whom are contemplating higher office, either a run for governor or U.S. senator, in the next election.

Quinn also is expected to forge a working relationship with the "Four Tops," the majority and minority leaders of the Illinois House and Senate. Blagojevich was compatriots with former Senate President Emil Jones, but he was rarely even in the same room with House Speaker Michael Madigan, state political powerhouse and dad of attorney general and gubernatorial hopeful Lisa Madigan.

While the potential future political rivalries could bear on their current relationships, Wheeler believes Quinn and Speaker Madigan will find a way to work together.

"Madigan is pragmatic. He will get along with anybody he thinks will keep their word. He understands differences of opinion, but Blagojevich was a liar who had no respect for the institutions or processes of government and he was a total slacker. None of those qualities would endear somebody to Madigan," he said.

It still is early to predict how Quinn's foray inside the halls of power will turn out, but Canary said she is hopeful.

"From the get go, we are coming into this saying we believe Pat Quinn is an honest broker. That is a huge change. While it wasn't something necessarily said out loud, for years we never felt Gov. Blagojevich was participating as an honest broker."

Cindy Richards is a veteran Chicago journalist and long-time observer of Illinois politics.

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