SPRINGFIELD – When lawmakers return to the Illinois Capitol on Tuesday, they’re expected to override Gov. Pat Quinn’s alterations to a gun bill they spent months negotiating on the same day they blow past at least the sixth deadline he’s given them to fix the state’s nearly $100 billion pension crisis.
Tensions are rising and patience is falling between Quinn and the Legislature as Illinois’ two highest-profile public policy issues vie for center stage.
The governor, a populist outsider and former consumer advocate, has never been particularly close to the power brokers in Springfield, but the grousing between them has broken into the open. Lawmakers say they are “disgusted” with Quinn’s last-minute meddling and accuse him of “pandering” to voters. They say his deadlines are irresponsible, while Quinn warns lawmakers not to “dilly-dally” on pensions and sell out to the gun lobby.
“The role of the governor ... is to act on behalf of the common good, the public interest, when the Legislature overreaches,” Quinn said Friday. “In this case I think they went way overboard pleasing the National Rifle Association and didn’t pay enough attention to public safety.”
With the 2014 gubernatorial election campaign already underway, there’s inevitably some showmanship in the fireworks.
But political experts say the rising rhetoric and clashing styles could be a hindrance as they try to forge agreements.
Chris Mooney, who teaches politics at the University of Illinois at Springfield, calls the exchanges “pure political grandstanding.” He said that criticizing the Legislature is a “tried and true approach” for governors when things go bad, because legislators are largely unknown to voters and not well thought of, so they are easy to demonize.
“It’s probably good politics, especially because the state is in a mess,” Mooney said. “Somebody has got to be to blame.”
For Quinn, an override and another blown deadline may not necessarily be seen as setbacks. His aides say he needs to keep pressuring lawmakers on pensions, and his tough stand on guns – even if rejected – will play well among Chicago constituents tired of gun violence at a time when Quinn’s popularity ratings are low and other Democrats are threatening to challenge him next year.
But clashing with the Legislature could make it tougher for him to do his overall job, Mooney said, because he runs the risk of alienating any friends he might have in the General Assembly. Even before the heated exchanges on guns, lawmakers already were piqued by Quinn’s governing style of setting deadlines, hanging back during negotiations and then intervening afterward.
“His relationship with the Legislature is not good, and it’s gotten worse,” Mooney said, who also recalled how nasty relations were between the Legislature and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich before he was arrested and convicted on corruption charges. “It’s not there yet, but that’s a pretty low bar.”
House Speaker Michael Madigan, like Quinn a Chicago Democrat, has publicly noted that lawmakers’ relationship with Quinn is better than with Blagojevich. The now-imprisoned Blagojevich once called lawmakers “drunken sailors” hungry for taxpayers’ money. But even Madigan called into question Quinn’s motives recently, saying he expected Quinn to act on the gun bill in a way “designed to advance his campaign for re-election.”
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown downplayed the tensions, saying lawmakers had a “continuing good relationship” with Quinn. He said Quinn was merely taking another shot at getting the changes he wants in the gun bill.
Others are questioning Quinn’s strategy of repeatedly issuing deadlines to a General Assembly over which he has little control. Former Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican with lots of experience trying to broker deals, said deadlines without more behind-the-scenes negotiating can make lawmakers want to defy Quinn.
“He’s got to be careful on the public pronouncements, because that can irritate the leaders,” he said. “That’s a delicate balance. I’m not sure he’s quite figured that balance out.”
Since April of last year, Quinn has twice called lawmakers back to Springfield for one-day special sessions devoted to pensions, in addition to end-of-session deadlines. So far, none of it has produced results.
Lawmakers now have formed a bipartisan committee to find a compromise between House and Senate plans. They meet Monday, but there’s little chance of fulfilling Quinn’s deadline. They’re increasingly frustrated.
“It’s a bit irresponsible to arbitrarily select a day when you’re not the one who has to sit there and crunch the numbers. You’re not the one showing any leadership,” said state Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Democrat who leads the committee.
The tensions were again visible Sunday when Quinn declined the panel’s invitation to testify Monday, saying that members know where he stands. He then issued a warning.
“When you don’t have your work done on time, that’s a situation where there are consequences and there will be,” he told reporters after talking up his gun legislation changes at a church on Chicago’s West Side. He declined to say what the consequences might include, but said he expected them to get the job done.
Committee members say Quinn’s issuing of deadlines is irresponsible.
Raoul sent Quinn a letter Friday, which was obtained by The Associated Press. Raoul says actuarial analysis on proposals, including ideas submitted by Quinn’s office, will take time.
Some of Quinn’s defenders, at least on pensions, say holding firm could help him as he bats at past criticism that he waivers on decisions. Mooney said it strengthens his image to be seen “lashing the whip.”
“There needs to be a sense of urgency, and (issuing deadlines) is something (Quinn) can try to do to contribute to that sense,” said Republican state Sen. Matt Murphy, another committee member. “I don’t fault him.”
In an op-ed Quinn wrote last month for Illinois newspapers, he said lawmakers shouldn’t “dilly-dally with partial solutions” and signaled that if this deadline doesn’t work, he’ll likely set another.
On the gun bill, Illinois is under a federal appeals court order to pass a concealed carry bill – the nation’s last – by Tuesday. After months of bargaining that produced a compromise bill in the General Assembly, Quinn waited more than a month before announcing an amendatory veto with major revisions without having signaled his intentions beforehand.
The move incensed the bill’s sponsors.
“I’m disgusted that the governor would do what he did,” said Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat. “It was total political pandering to his Chicago vote.”