A Minute With...

Christopher Mooney, expert on state politics

3/26/2014  8:00 am

Christopher Z. Mooney is the director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois and the W. Russell Arrington Professor of State Politics on the Springfield campus. Mooney studies comparative U.S. state politics, with a special focus on state legislatures. He spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about this fall’s race for governor of Illinois between Republican Bruce Rauner and the Democratic incumbent, Pat Quinn.

Some critics have said that this fall’s election for governor will set the course for the state of Illinois for decades to come. Do you agree?

image  of professor christopher mooneyEvery gubernatorial election sets the course for the state for the foreseeable future, since the governor is by far the most important public figure in the state. In Illinois, we have a strong institutional governorship, which makes it the pivotal position in our state government. It’s also the pinnacle position in state politics (with the possible exception of the mayor of Chicago), which is not always true in every state. Sometimes a U.S. Senate seat is more attractive than being governor. However, that’s not generally the case in Illinois.

But this particular election is crucial because of the very severe fiscal crisis that the state is facing. We’ve got budget deficits that are projected to increase on the order of billions of dollars per year over the next decade. The Fiscal Futures Project at the IGPA projects that under current law, the state will be facing a $3 billion budget deficit in fiscal year 2015, and a $13 billion deficit by fiscal year 2025. Obviously, that’s an unsustainable situation. The policymakers in the state need to make a decision very soon about whether to keep the 2011 temporary tax increase on personal and business income. But even if we do that, we’re still going to need more revenue or big cuts in services – probably both.

So whoever is elected in the fall is going to have to make a lot of unattractive choices. It’s not as if whoever is elected is going to be able to come in and build a bunch of state parks. The next governor is going to have to cause pain, and that’s all there is to it. These are going to be policy choices that will have a huge effect on people all around the state, so this election is very important in that regard.

With all the talk of Rauner’s personal wealth and Quinn’s perceived weakness both as a governor and in the polls, is this election season likely to be one of the ugliest in recent memory?

Both of the candidates have significant weaknesses that the other can readily exploit, so it’s likely to devolve into a negative campaign. That’s not to say that either candidate is worse or better, but whenever there is a way to get leverage over your opponent in a close race, you exploit that weakness. And this has all the hallmarks of a close race.

Rauner is a venture capitalist, so there’s probably plenty of opposition research that the Quinn campaign will be able to use. We saw a preview of that in the Republican primary campaign. Because he hasn’t run for office before, we don’t know what all those weaknesses may be, if any. Also, as an inexperienced candidate, he may say or do something that the Quinn campaign exploits to its advantage. For example, his different remarks about the minimum wage have been used against him by both GOP opponents and the Quinn campaign.

Quinn, on the other hand, has to wear the collar for the state’s lackluster performance over the last six years. Did he cause everything that’s gone wrong? No, it’s been a build-up over many, many years. But he’s certainly been in office long enough so that he can’t blame anyone else. He’s got to take responsibility for where the state of Illinois is right now. The fiscal condition of the state is in shambles, and the state economy is not good, especially compared to our neighbors. There’s good anecdotal evidence that there’s a great deal of dissatisfaction among voters with Illinois government, as it currently exists. And that is reflected in Quinn’s low approval ratings, some of the lowest of any governor in the country.

Both candidates have their negatives, so each has plenty of ammunition to use against the other if he wants to.

These two candidates also have a dearth of effective positive things to say about their own accomplishments. Rauner can point to his success in business, but that doesn’t exactly translate to being chief executive of a state. Quinn, on the other hand, doesn’t have a great deal to show for his time in office, partly because of the fiscal condition of the state, some of which he inherited. He can claim with more or less validity that he reformed the pension system; he passed gay marriage; and that he abolished the death penalty. He may even trumpet concealed carry. The problem with all of those accomplishments is that they all came very recently, and each one of them aggravates a certain part of his constituency.

The other thing is that both candidates are going to have more money than they know what to do with. So we’re probably going to be subject to a long, bitter campaign for governor.

Is Rauner’s plan for terms limits for all members of the Illinois Legislature constitutional? Is it even realistic? (In 1994, Pat Quinn, who was state treasurer at that time, led a similar effort that was narrowly defeated by the state supreme court.)

Certainly, it’s a strategic move on Rauner’s part to align himself with a very popular issue, one that differentiates himself from both his Republican rivals and Gov. Quinn, who have all served in government a long time. But it also could pass. If they get enough signatures, and it sounds like they will, they tried very hard to craft the proposal to be constitutional.

Ultimately, nobody really knows until the Illinois Supreme Court considers it. If it passes muster with the court, I’m almost certain it will pass in November, simply because there are very few issues among voters that are as popular as term limits.

After that, all legislators are grandfathered in, meaning the time limit clock begins at zero for everyone. So in eight years – January 2023 – whoever serves between then and now would have to give up their spots.

Will that be a recipe for legislative chaos?

It would be very bad if there were no grandfather clause, because then a number of lawmakers would be kicked out immediately, and then we would have all sorts of special elections. That would be a problem. But since we’re going to have eight years to get ready, it’s a very slow train coming down the track. But it would certainly be a big change in Springfield.

There are parallels to this in Michigan and California – big states with professional legislatures that also adopted term limits. At first, there was a lot of confusion. It took them a while to figure out what to do. And there were a lot of changes – and not all of them were the ones that the reformers were hoping for. They have sorted things out since then, but it would certainly mean a period of adjustment for state politics – just not right away.

What do you make of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s 3 percent surcharge proposal on income over $1 million? Is it a legitimate public policy that aims to get out in front of the tax increase potentially expiring in January, or is it more of a political barb aimed at Rauner?

It’s as legitimate as any public policy idea for generating more revenue. It’s progressive in the sense that people with more money would pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes, and those with less would pay less. That principle is enshrined in our federal income tax system.

However, it’s a pretty blunt instrument. Why not $750,000? Or even $500,000? So it’s gimmicky in the sense that it was crafted to play well in the media and among the voters. A “millionaire’s tax” is catchy. And it certainly puts Rauner in an awkward position. If he’s for it, it doesn’t fit his typical anti-tax position. If he’s against it, then he’s seen as favoring the rich.

So it’s probably a little bit of both – policy and political strategy – on Madigan’s part. But maybe not in equal measure. It is an election year, after all.

 

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