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Retaliation no way to fix state’s woes

Editor’s Note: This commentary initially was written for the St. Louis Beacon. Read more at stlbeacon.org.

Gov. Pat Quinn, who cut his political teeth during the rancorous reign of the combative Dan Walker, is biting back in a fashion that evokes instructive memories of his boss.

Smarting from the General Assembly’s rebuff of his proposed changes to a measure legalizing concealed carry and their snub of his unrealistic deadline to deliver a comprehensive pension reform package, the governor retaliated: no payday for lawmakers without a retirement system rescue.

His legally dubious veto of salary funds generated flattering news coverage. It played to the disgust of Illinoisans, especially current and retired public employees thirsty for retribution against those who underfunded their pension reserves and now seem poised to overstep what many constitutional experts regard as insurmountable barriers against diminishing their benefits. For a governor facing a steep re-election climb and taunted as inept and irrelevant by lawmakers, it was both a payback and a ploy to build his sagging poll numbers.

He cast the move as policy driven, arguing it would jolt lawmakers into helping him fix what Quinn rightly portrays as a grave threat to the state’s viability. However, petty revenge rarely begets positive results, as Walker and constant cycles of vengeance dramatically illustrated four decades ago.

“The free ride is over,” the state’s 36th chief executive declared at his 1973 inaugural after he won the office by casting himself as a white knight and verbally lancing primary foe Paul Simon as a puppet of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley despite the downstater’s good-government record. Few, if any, phrases uttered by a new governor have been so long remembered. When his administration strayed from the righteous ride he had promised, his credibility suffered. At the same time, most Democratic and Republican lawmakers took the rhetorical flourish as a call to war.

They rejected key gubernatorial appointments. He often flew to media markets throughout the state to denounce what he colorfully painted as their profligate and corrupt ways. They slashed funding for his staff to deplete it. He responded by sneaking aides, including Quinn, onto the payrolls of state agencies to which they had little or no accountability as they did his bidding.

Walker nixed funding for pet causes of uncooperative lawmakers. They responded by shooting down his high-flying infrastructure initiative amid a chorus of dive-bomber whistles that reached a surreal crescendo when one of the legislation’s chief sponsors urged colleagues to join him in voting against it.

Although all of this created intrigue and entertainment for investigative journalists and political junkies, it frustrated problem solving. Still, the state’s foundation was sufficiently sturdy to bear the gamesmanship and confrontation.

Not so today. Thanks largely to Rod Blagojevich, who borrowed from Walker’s playbook but was not nearly as managerially inclined, our state finds itself in a once unimaginable morass. Businesses hesitate to grow and locate here because of an uncertain future gravely imperiled by a gargantuan deficit, exacerbated by an unfunded pension liability. The unprecedented crisis robs the potential of our most at-risk children and the prospects for a skilled workforce. Pervasive distrust debilitates us – the distrust of citizens in their leaders, the distrust of politicians in the willingness of citizens to sacrifice for generations to come, the distrust of territorial Senate Democrats in an imperious House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, the distrust of Republican legislators in primary voters if they dare to offer more than vapid, pandering sound-bites, the distrust of almost all lawmakers in a mercurial Quinn.

Distrust cannot save and renew Illinois. Neither can retribution. We must somehow conquer both.

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