It's tough to find people who truly believe that Gov. Pat Quinn will ultimately pull the trigger and give the go-ahead to draconian budget cuts in the coming fiscal year in order to force a tax hike. But his people insist it's coming, and the administrative planning does appear to be moving forward with all deliberate speed.
The governor has basically three choices. He could veto the budget approved by the General Assembly and force a showdown overtime session. The budget only funds half of social service programs for next fiscal year. A veto would create an immediate confrontation, but it would also put him in the same sort of league with Rod Blagojevich, and Quinn doesn't want or need that comparison. Plus, the overtime session could drag on for weeks as the leaders try to put together another budget plan. And until there is a plan, the Republicans will face no real pressure to act. Instead, they'll get daily opportunities to bash Quinn and the Democrats.
Quinn is also being urged to treat the "50 percent budget" as if it's really a six-month budget. This plan would put off a vote on taxes until next year. But the governor's office maintains that this can't legally be done.
The third option is to sign the budget into law as is, which will lead to horrific cuts. That's the direction Quinn is heading. Yes, he has appeared to back off of some big fights. And, yes, he's a deeply liberal and religious man who abhors the very idea of massive cuts, particularly the billions of dollars slashed from human service grant programs.
"I don't believe in holding the Sword of Damocles over the heads of innocent people," Quinn said last week.
But that mythical sword will soon become all too real. At least two state prisons are reportedly on the chopping block. Thousands of state employees could be laid off if the union doesn't agree to other cutbacks. Quinn claimed last week that the cuts to private human service agency grants alone would result in 200,000 job losses.
Quinn will have to hope that the threat of doom will be enough to move legislators to action. "I'm disappointed that we aren't having enough urgency," Quinn said. Urgency will assuredly hit the fan soon.
Threats alone may not work. Legislators have heard doomsday warnings for years and nothing has ever come of it. Late last year, many were predicting a government shutdown by the spring because the legislature had adjourned with a $2+ billion deficit and revenues were tanking right along with the economy. Didn't happen.
Once they've been around for awhile, legislators realize that almost everybody they deal with is somehow always in crisis mode. "If the state doesn't do 'X' then catastrophe is certain." But those catastrophes never seem to come.
Quinn's first attempt at threatening doomsday last month was met with bored yawns. The bottom line was nobody took him seriously. And they still don't.
Quinn appeared to run from a tough fight with the teachers and public employee unions when he succumbed way too soon on a plan to force workers to pay more into their pension plans.
The lifelong reformer has been excoriated by reform groups for "caving" to the old bulls on campaign finance reform.
If you look weak in this business, you are weak.
His repeated public homilies to the poor and the outcast make people believe he won't play a role in their devastation. Therefore, his warnings probably won't work. He'll likely have to just go ahead and do it.
The governor should take a moment and reread Cicero's timeless story about that infamous sword. The actual lesson is that the powerful are not as happy as they may seem because they are under constant, perilous threat.
"There can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms," Cicero explained.
Pat Quinn has been on the outside mocking the insiders all his adult life, and now he's gotten what he always wanted and is on top of the heap, only to look up and see a gigantic sword dangling by a thread over his head. The peasant Damocles had envied the king's power, but he panicked and fled at the sight of the sword hanging above the throne.
In the coming days we're gonna find out what Pat Quinn is really made of.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com