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Defiant Quinn continues power-play attempt

A bipartisan chorus seemed to rise as one last week to urge Gov. Pat Quinn not to appeal a ruling by a Cook County judge.

The judge ruled that the governor had violated the state Constitution when he vetoed lawmaker salaries last summer. Quinn said he vetoed the appropriations because he was tired of waiting for legislators to finish a pension reform plan.

Despite urgings by Democrats and Republicans to drop the whole thing, Quinn forged ahead, issuing a defiant statement in which he vowed to pursue an appeal of Judge Neil Cohen’s decision voiding the veto and ordering lawmaker paychecks to be processed “immediately.”

Judge Cohen agreed with Quinn on one issue about the veto process, but then went on to declare Quinn’s veto wasn’t valid from the moment it was issued. Cohen did so by relying on the meaning of a single word: “Changes.”

Quinn argued that transcripts from the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention clearly showed that delegates hoped to stop legislators from increasing their salaries when they agreed on language that prevented “changes in the salary of a member” from taking effect during their term of office following their most recent election.

Cohen relied on two dictionary definitions to declare that the common meaning of “changes” included both increases and decreases. Therefore, Quinn’s veto violated the Constitution and was declared null and void.

It’s actually a pretty well-reasoned and informed decision, especially considering the fact that Judge Cohen seemed more than a little out of his element during a previous hearing. He didn’t appear to understand the briefs that already had been presented, and appeared confused at times about the Constitution and general procedure. He even agreed to put off his decision by a week so that Madigan and Cullerton could file another brief, but then went ahead without them and gave them what they asked for.

OK, back to the appeal, which is no surprise, to say the least. Even setting aside the overwhelming popularity of the governor’s veto and Quinn’s natural stubbornness, there should have never been any doubt that Quinn would attempt to appeal this ruling.

Quinn has jealously guarded his powers and attempted – often bungling – to expand the powers of his office ever since he was elevated in 2009. One of the ways he’s done this is by issuing presidential-like “signing statements.” His latest, issued in July, promised that he would not allow a bill he’d signed to undermine the state’s compliance with a class-action consent decree. Quinn is the first to use such statements, which are normally reserved for vetoes.

He also has constantly meddled in the affairs of various boards and commissions, demanding resignations of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees after a political influence scandal and recently calling for the ouster of the director of the state’s torture commission. He attempted to pack Southern Illinois University’s board this year in order to get his way at that university, but was solidly rebuked when the Senate unanimously rejected his appointees.

Quinn called for the “fumigation” of state government when he was first elevated to the office, but then resisted several legislative efforts designed to get rid of Blagojevich holdovers, saying it was his job to fire them.

An appeal, therefore, would be right in line with Quinn’s history of protecting and expanding his powers. He clearly believes he had the absolute right to veto those salaries and that the judge was wrong to stop him. This is more than just a political game to Quinn, even though the game is most definitely part of it.

He acts like such a goofball at times that it’s often difficult to take what he says and does at face value, but this is obviously very serious business to the governor. Make no mistake, Quinn wants the right to do this again. And he wants his successors to have this right in order to bring the General Assembly to heel.

Most people don’t know that Chicago mayors are legally quite weak. They compensate by building strong political organizations.

Illinois governors are constitutionally strong, so state legislative leaders have compensated for their comparative weakness by building huge political fiefdoms and devising innumerable rules to stymie the governor’s powers. Quinn appears to be trying to inject some balance into the government with this veto.

• Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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