Quinn: Climate of friction in Assembly obstructs taxpayer rights

When he talks about his track record of striking nerves in Springfield, Pat Quinn comes off as more than slightly amused.

Illinois’ lieutenant governor of five years, Quinn has become increasingly vocal in calling out the General Assembly, the Cook County Board and his own boss, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, for what he perceives as intrusions into taxpayer rights.

Most recently he took issue with the Assembly’s plan to give themselves pay raises as Cook County taxes steadily creep upward.

“A lot of people today feel that the office holders too often ignore the public point of view,” Quinn says. “Indeed there may be some that are even contemptuous of the public point of view.”

Last week Quinn picketed one of the governor’s speeches, urging the public to sign a petition dissuading lawmakers from allowing the automatic 7.5 percent pay raise to take effect. Blagojevich dodged the crowd by entering the building through a back door, and Senate President Emil Jones refused to shake Quinn’s outstretched hand as he brushed past him.

“When he walked in, he said, ‘What’s your name?’ to me,” Quinn says. “Not very complimentary, I guess.”

Despite the cold reception, the stunt worked. The lieutenant governor collected more than 17,000 signatures in 48 hours, putting enough pressure on the Assembly to call a vote and cancel the raises.

Quinn takes pride in his ability to move the masses, referring to his grassroots campaigns as the unstoppable force to Springfield’s immovable object. He has built his political career around his support of initiatives, public referendums and recall of public officials, all of which he regards as vital components of participatory government.

“I believe in direct democracy,” Quinn says. “It’s a good safety valve to have when things go askew in government.”

Quinn has fought for his concept of direct democracy since the ’70s, when he led a series of petition drives asking legislators to reform the state tax system and grant Illinois citizens the power to vote directly in referendums. His best-known effort to enact such referendums, the Illinois Initiative, received widespread public support before failing in the state Supreme Court in the late ’70s.

The ultimate line of defense, in Quinn’s opinion, would be an amended state constitution that gives Illinois residents a louder voice in the political process and limits the government’s ability to overburden taxpayers. “The people are the boss,” Quinn said at a recent conference while proposing an amendment to strengthen the power of the state’s Compensation Review Board.

Quinn says taxpayers should have the power to vote directly on constitutional amendments, which will only become possible if there is sufficient support for a constitutional convention in November’s election.

A constitutional convention, or “con con,” as it’s called by insiders, is a meeting of specially elected delegates who propose and vote on new amendments to the state constitution—which could include new regulations on campaign ethics, school funding, pay raises or a number of other possibilities. The proposals would then be sent back to Illinois voters, who would approve or reject each amendment in an up or down vote.

Convention delegates, as Quinn is quick to point out, do not have to be career politicians, nor do they have to be affiliated with any political party. This distinction, the lieutenant governor says, makes them more independent of the Springfield mentality and thus more capable of representing the true perspective of the citizens of Illinois. Many delegates attending a 1970 con con had had no prior political experience, and many never returned to politics after the meetings concluded, according to Quinn.

“They were there to do a job,” Quinn says. “And I think that attitude is why a convention is superior to just relying on the same old people in Springfield that we have today.”

Quinn’s ongoing quest to amend the constitution has given him a sort of notoriety among his peers—some see him as a man staunchly devoted to ensuring a formal guarantee of taxpayers’ rights, while others regard his actions as a threat to the stability of the state’s most important document.

“There’s just not agreement that a constitutional convention would be productive or constructive, given the political climate that we currently have,” says Jeff Mays, president of the Illinois Business Roundtable and member of the Alliance to Protect the Illinois Constitution.

Mays and the alliance believe that there are other avenues to bring about the types of reforms Quinn is pursuing. Most importantly, Mays says, politicians themselves have to stand for public election, holding them directly accountable to their constituents.

“This is a constitution you’re talking about changing. It’s not just a statutory compendium. So maybe it should take a little more time,” Mays says. “I would not want to expose our constitution to the current political winds that are blowing right now.”

Quinn says his odds of success are relatively slim, but he believes he’s got enough public support to pass the con con vote.

“There’s no question that we’re the underdog,” says Quinn, referring to a $3 million advertising campaign soon to be rolled out by the anti-con con coalition.

“The opponents of a con con, to me, they’ve got to trust democracy. They basically make an argument that the status quo is acceptable. And I think that’s where their weakest position is.”

The well-documented climate of “friction and gridlock” between every branch of Illinois government must subside, Quinn says, before the issue of amending the constitution can even be reached.

by Rob Heidrick