Last week we all celebrated — or bemoaned — the first anniversary of Rod Blagojevich’s arrest. After Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office, I, like most others, thought that things were going to be different with Pat Quinn in charge.
But the Statehouse bickering continues and the gridlock over the state’s paralyzing and mind-boggling budget deficit is almost as bad as ever. Heck, it may even be worse.
You probably know by now that Gov. Quinn wants to take out a $500 million short-term loan and use about half of it to help pay some of the state’s bills during the holiday season — particularly focusing on private, not-for-profit human service agencies that take care of the poor, the infirm and the aged.
Comptroller Dan Hynes and Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias must both sign off on the borrowing, but Hynes said “no” earlier this month. Among other things, Hynes says there’s no money to pay off the loan, and likened the idea to using one credit card to pay down another one. Ironically enough, Quinn nixed a similar idea when he was state treasurer back in the 1990s.
After much back-and-forth bickering between Quinn and Hynes, things seemed to calm down for a few days. Then, Gov. Quinn said last week that he wasn’t going to continue harping on Hynes’ refusal to approve the borrowing plan. At the same time, though, he couldn’t resist getting in a shot at his Democratic primary opponent, and even attempted to link him to disgraced former Gov. Blagojevich.
“A year ago, with the previous governor under arrest, the comptroller signed off on a $1.4 billion short-term borrowing plan. I don’t know, if you’re going to do that, at that time, and a year later, running for office, saying you can’t borrow money to help human beings get paid in the month of December, the holiday season... I think he’s missing the boat on that.” Quinn then said he was dropping the subject. “But we’re not going to beat that horse. If [Hynes] has his position we just have to move on.”
But it was clear a couple of days later that Quinn was not at all intending to “move on.” Quinn addressed the Governor’s Conference on Aging last week and pledged to “get the necessary funds to pay our bills,” then added, “Even if the comptroller is blocking my plan.”
AARP Illinois also held a press conference that day to warn that 200 human services agencies that deal with senior citizens could be out of business in a matter of weeks if the state doesn’t start making good on its overdue bills soon.
Hynes may be right about the narrow fiscal issues at hand — that there is no available money to pay off the proposed loan, that the state will need to use a third of its revenues to pay off its short-term loans in March and April and that the new loan would only cover 5 percent of the state’s overdue bills — but this is a political time bomb, particularly in a Democratic primary race. We’re talking about human service agencies which serve lots of poor people. It doesn’t take a media expert to figure out how to spin that one.
Of course, this would’ve been a much more effective bludgeon had Gov. Quinn not so thoroughly muffed the issue earlier this month by attacking Hynes with the false claim that Treasurer Giannoulias was supporting the loan.
Still we can expect more and more stories on this growing crisis. It’s the holidays, and this is a ready-made story for the season. Quinn can come off looking compassionate, while Hynes is in real danger of being portrayed as a fussbudget who is more worried about numbers and making Quinn look bad in advance of the primary than he is about real people.
Chicago’s ABC7 — the top-rated news station in the region — ran its second long story on this topic last week. In the piece, Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) is featured demanding that political leaders “put aside our partisan differences, our political aspirations, and take emergency action now.”
That’s the sort of comment which we will undoubtedly see more of as the rest of the media begin to pay attention to this topic. It’s a high-stakes game. Unfortunately, there are a lot of “little people” in the middle who are melting down while the state dithers.
Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.