Perhaps it was, plain and simple, a paranormal phenomenon. Whatever the explanation, Gov. Pat Quinn sure looked like he was channeling his disgraced predecessor on a number of high-profile, mid-summer occasions.
Here’s a sampler of Quinn actions that smack of Rod Blagojevich:
- Using his amendatory veto power, the governor gutted a measure allowing Illinois ammunition dealers to mail their wares to in-state customers, as out-of-state dealers already can do. Instead, Quinn rewrote the bill to propose a ban on so-called assault weapons, a long-sought goal of gun control advocates.
Coming in the wake of the Colorado theater shootings, Quinn’s action was widely seen as a pandering publicity stunt, trying to score some airtime and ink with Chicago media. Does that remind you of an earlier governor, now ensconced in a federal bread-and-breakfast? Just four years ago, Blagojevich trotted out a “Rewrite to Do Right” campaign, in which he promised to issue amendatory vetoes to 50 pending bills “to make them better” and compel legislators to approve ideas they wouldn’t support earlier. The effort fizzled but brought Blagojevich the spotlight he craved.
Concluding that Quinn’s assault weapons plan is a similar attention-getting effort seems clearly warranted, under the circumstances. Like most downstaters, the underlying bill’s sponsor, Sen. David Leuchtefeld, an Okawville Republican, is a strong Second Amendment supporter who is unlikely to go along with the governor’s ploy. Moreover, House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, has been a fierce critic of gubernatorial abuse of the amendatory veto for decades, and under House rules, Quinn’s proposal likely could not even come up for a vote, in the extremely unlikely event that it garnered Senate acceptance.
Perhaps the dead giveaway, though, is the governor’s veto message itself, which calls for “replacing everything after the enacting clause” with his proposed assault weapons ban. While the Illinois Supreme Court over the years has ruled governors have wide latitude in rewriting bills, the justices in a January 1972 opinion noted, “It can be said with certainty ... that the substitution of complete new bills ... is not authorized by the Constitution.”
Quinn is the first governor in 40 years to try, suggesting either that he wasn’t really serious or that he forgot about the earlier opinion, which still stands. Neither alternative is reason to brag.
- Quinn summoned lawmakers to a one-day, mid-August special session to deal with pension reform, winning plaudits from editorial writers but raising eyebrows among long-time legislative observers who saw no agreement in the works, which for many years was the standard rule-of-thumb for calling back lawmakers.
Instead, many recalled Blagojevich’s 16 special sessions of July and August 2007 that accomplished little beyond irritating lawmakers, which some suspected was the governor’s goal all along.
In his call, Quinn stressed the urgency for reform to rein in costs that he said escalate at a rate of $12.6 million a day, yet none of the ideas being discussed, including a plan the Senate approved in May, would kick in until next year, meaning the tab would continue to mount in any event.
The House already was scheduled to meet on Quinn’s special session day, and Senate President John Cullerton, a Democrat from Chicago, volunteered to bring his chamber back in regular session, too, thus saving taxpayers some $40,000 in daily expenses to which lawmakers would be entitled for the special session. (After May 31, legislators get no expenses for regular sessions during the summer.)
Quinn wasn’t eager to take up Cullerton’s offer, leading some analysts to suggest the governor didn’t want to share the spotlight. A more plausible — and charitable — explanation would be that were the Senate to meet in regular session, senators would have a chance to restore funding Quinn slashed for prisons and human services facilities that the governor wants to close. But voting to put the money back into the budget would be symbolic, too; governors can’t spend more than the legislature appropriates — though Blagojevich tried hard — but with few exceptions, they don’t have to spend any of a given allocation, either.
- Perhaps most disturbing, Quinn seems to be developing the same sort of obsessive secrecy his predecessor favored, at least for the state’s troubled prison system, which houses some 48,000 inmates jammed into space designed for 33,000.
Specifically, Quinn’s controversial plan to close the state’s lone super-maximum security prison at Tamms has raised serious concerns about the impact on security elsewhere in the system, issues raised most notably by the union representing guards and other prison workers.
The administration’s response basically has been, “Trust us.” Corrections officials refused to allow reporters to visit Vandalia and Vienna, two facilities that the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog, cited last year for deplorable living conditions. Defending the denials, Quinn noted prisons are not “country clubs” and said visiting reporters would pose a security risk. Yet the state has a long history under prior administrations of allowing reporters to make on-site inspections of prison conditions.
Moreover, when Lee Enterprises’ Springfield bureau chief Kurt Erickson revealed plans to transfer nine Tamms prisoners out-of-state, an agency official said the agency saw the story as an attempt “to promote disorder within the prison system.”
Corrections officials also ordered a “mass shakedown” — contraband searches — after shifts at several downstate prisons within minutes of a Statehouse hearing at which a dozen prison workers testified about overcrowding and understaffing in the system.
A few weeks later, Illinois State Police launched a criminal investigation into leaks from Tamms, which the governor defended as an effort to root out staffers who revealed confidential health information. However, staffers who were interrogated, and their union leaders, saw the searches and the investigation as an administration attempt to retaliate against whistle blowers and intimidate anyone else thinking of letting the public know what’s going on behind prison walls.
That’s quite a turnaround for Quinn, an erstwhile champion of government openness and transparency, but quite typical for Blagojevich. Let’s hope the condition is only temporary, and the old Pat Quinn returns with the cooler weather!
Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield.
Illinois Issues, September 2012