Illinois' Pat Quinn Takes Helm Amid Budget Woes

Lawmakers in Illinois have passed a massive tax increase to address the state's budget woes. Gov. Pat Quinn, who took over for the indicted and impeached Rod Blagojevich two years ago, inherited a budget deficit that has grown to be worst in the nation, and he made the tax increase a centerpiece of his campaign for a full term.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The newly elected governor of Illinois, Democrat Pat Quinn, was sworn in on Monday and already it's been a busy week. Early today, Illinois lawmakers approved a huge increase in the state's income tax. The goal is to start chipping away at a $15 billion budget deficit - among the worst in the nation.

This month, we've been exploring some of the challenges facing the nation's new governors. Quinn is not as new as others. He took over for the impeached and indicted Rod Blagojevich two years ago, and he won the job in his own right in November. For Quinn, the tax hike vote was an early test of leadership with more surely to come.

From Springfield, Illinois, NPR's David Schaper has the story.

SIEGEL: Hey, guys. We're gonna talk tomorrow.

DAVID SCHAPER: As he waited for an elevator in the capitol around 1:30 this morning, a bleary-eyed Illinois Governor Pat Quinn was uncharacteristically quiet about the big income tax increase that had just barely won approval in the Illinois legislature.

SIEGEL: Well, we were happy that the Senate voted that way and the House did too. And we'll talk about it tomorrow morning.

SCHAPER: It's been a big week for Quinn. He triumphantly took the oath of office Monday for his first full term as Illinois governor after barely squeaking out victories in last year's primary and general elections. But it's been trying, too, as he had to meet privately with legislators and work the floor of the Illinois House last night to try to cajole a few waffling fellow Democrats into voting to increase income taxes 67 percent.

Once Quinn signs the bill, individual income taxes will rise from 3 percent to 5 percent, and corporate taxes will shoot up from 4.8 to 7 percent.

Quinn says these higher taxes may not be popular but are critical for the state's fiscal survival.

SIEGEL: We have an emergency, a fiscal emergency. Our state was careening towards bankruptcy and fiscal insolvency. Even in the last couple of months, the situation got seriously more dire.

NORRIS: First of all, he inherited a mess.

SCHAPER: Former Illinois Republican Governor Jim Edgar, now a fellow at the University of Illinois Institute for Government and Public Affairs.

NORRIS: It was basically based off of two governors before who I don't think were very fiscally responsible.

SCHAPER: Edgar says those governors, Republican George Ryan and Democrat Rod Blagojevich, both of whom were convicted of corruption, spent too much, borrowed to make ends meet and delayed or skipped pension fund payments, increasing the state's debt.

Along with state lawmakers, Edgar says they kicked the can down the road, and the can got a lot bigger. And then the recession hit. Quinn, who served one term as state treasurer in the early '90s while Edgar was governor, made his name in Illinois politics as more of an outside agitator who has lost more campaigns than he's won. He's taken an unconventional route to the governor's office.

After losing bids for secretary of state, U.S. Senate and governor, he was elected lieutenant governor in 2002, a post considered so lowly here it's nicknamed light governor and went unfilled after Quinn was catapulted into the top job in Illinois government by Blagojevich's arrest and removal from office.

Former Republican governor Edgar says Democrat Quinn is still growing into the job, but he has changed from his more populist outsider days.

NORRIS: Well, I like this Pat Quinn a lot better because now that he's in power, he's got to kind of be a little more responsible than when you're on the outside just throwing bombs all the time. I told him - I said, now you got to catch them, and that's a lot tougher to do.

SCHAPER: Other longtime Illinois political observers here in the state capitol rotunda say Quinn, now secure in a full term in office, can claim victory in the first big test of his leadership.

NORRIS: Well, I think it shows that finally things clicked.

SCHAPER: Bernie Schoenburg is a political writer and columnist for the Springfield State Journal-Register.

NORRIS: I have said from the time he got in, as he changes opinion, Pat Quinn, on this or that, that it has looked as if he's a little wishy-washy on some things and he didn't seem to have the levers of power. Somehow, it all came together.

SCHAPER: But Schoenburg and others say this is only the beginning of Quinn's challenges. The tax hike will raise close to $7 billion, but that's far less than what's needed to balance the budget. And a borrowing measure and cigarette tax increase he also pushed for both failed, meaning the governor will be forced to further rein in spending and even make significant cuts to state services in the coming months.

David Schaper, NPR News in Springfield, Illinois.

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