From The Archives: Chicagoist Interviews Pat Quinn
By Marcus Gilmer in News on Jan 29, 2009 9:37PM
As we prepare for Pat Quinn to be sworn in as the 41st Governor of Illinois upon Gov. Blagojevich's impending removal, we thought we'd dig back into the vaults for this interview. Kevin Robinson sat down with Quinn in April 2007.
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
Regarded in political circles as a progressive, Pat Quinn has a record of organizing grassroots political initiatives around the state since the 1970s, including the ultimately unsuccessful push for the "Illinois Initiative," which would have amended the state constitution to give state citizens the power to enact statutes through the process of referenda, much like California. Although the petition drive was successful, it was blocked by the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled that the Illinois Initiative was an "unconstitutional constitutional amendment" and was never put before voters. In 1980 he successfully led the fight for the Cutback amendment to the Illinois Constitution, which reduced the size of the Illinois House of Representatives from 177 to 118 members. In 1983 he led the drive to create the Citizens Utility Board. His undergraduate degree is in International Economics, which he earned at Georgetown, and he holds a law degree from Northwestern and teaches Tax Law at Chicago-Kent. Recently, he has led the fight against utility rate hikes in Illinois, and, much like former Lt. Governor Paul Simon, he has used his position in state government to advocate for taxpayers and other people that lack powerful interests in our political system.
Much like the political culture in this state, Illinois election law has some unusual requirements, among them that candidates for lieutenant governor run separate in the primary from candidates for governor. As such, the two highest elected executives in the state don't always agree, and the Blagojevich-Quinn administration has been no exception. Chicagoist had the opportunity to sit down with Quinn in his Chicago office a few weeks ago to discuss grassroots activism, tax relief, ethics, public transit, and Paul Simon.
Chicagoist: How did you get started in Illinois politics?
Pat Quinn: Passing petitions. I came back from college, and I believe in grassroots democracy, and there was a campaign for governor, and the first thing I did was I passed petitions to get the candidate on the ballot. I always liked the process of passing petitions, and on my own we started a group called the Coalition for Political Honesty. This was in 1975, 32 years ago, and it was really half a dozen of my friends, and my brother too, so relatives, and we wanted to put a binding referendum on the statewide ballot. The constitution had been adopted in 1970, and it has limited provisions for a binding referendum that had never been tried, and we wanted to try it, try putting something on the ballot on ethics in government. We had a petition drive, and [we passed petitions for the] political honesty initiative, and one of the measures was abolishing the practice of legislators in Illinois collecting their entire salary on the first day in office. We’d had this practice for about a hundred years, and it was kind of a spectacle: you’d get sworn into office and then stampede over to the Treasurer’s Office to collect the whole year’s paycheck. But it gets worse. There was [a state] senator at the time who ran for alderman and got elected and wouldn’t give her salary back that she had taken in advance for the legislature. And that was bad and caused a lot of controversy. And there was another fellow who got convicted of a felony, sent to jail, and had taken his two-year pay in advance and he wouldn’t return it even though he was in the jailhouse. So we had a bill to end this practice; a rookie legislator sponsored it, and it was defeated 17-3 in committee, so it was pretty clear the legislature wasn’t going to do this without a little prodding.
And that was really one of our key petition elements. We went around the state and collected 635,158 signatures, and we filed this petition in Springfield. The powers that be didn’t like the referendum idea, the petition, or the subject, so they said that you had to file all the petition pages in one book and tie it all together, that was the law. Well, the petition was at least 30 feet long. At that time Spike O’Dell wasn’t the morning radio host at WGN, it was a fellow named Wally Phillips, who was very helpful to us, he heard about our dilemma and got on the radio, and then I had engineers calling me, use airplane cable, this and that, to tie it all together. We had a canoe. We literally wheeled it down the street in Springfield, and then wheeled it up the state capitol steps, and filed it, and within a short period of time we got the law passed against advance pay. On a related afternote, the other day I got asked what do you think about the Governor getting booed in Quincy, Ill. I said well, you gotta have a pretty tough hide if you are going to run for office and be governor or lieutenant governor or anything else, and I’ve been booed myself a few times. And one of them was after we did this petition drive and got the law passed against advance pay, which had been kicked out of committee with great might of the legislators, but then the next thing you know they almost unanimously ended the practice after we filed our petition. But I was sitting in the gallery of the [state] House of Representatives after the law was passed, and a fellow saw me up there and he said “Mr. Speaker, we have Pat Quinn in the gallery,” and the entire house stood up and booed for three minutes. A standing boo-vation. Sometimes a knock for them is a plug for you, and that’s really how it began.
C: You mentioned passing petitions and doing grassroots activism. One of the things you supported early in the 70’s was the Illinois Initiative, which would have allowed citizens to put propositions on the ballot. Having been in state government for a while, especially at the executive level, do you still support that kind of initiative?
PQ: I believe in the power of initiative, and referendum and recall; I prefer all of that. Most states have initiative. Midwestern states include Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin has it at the local level, not at the state level, and Wisconsin invented recall. I think the tools of direct democracy don’t replace a representative assembly. They’re going to deal with 99½ percent of the issues. But the safety valve of initiative or referendum, is when there is a subject, like today utility rates are not getting proper attention, the people have a place to go to and put their own measure on the ballot and resolve the question. To me that’s the shortcoming of Illinois politics: a lot of issues never get resolved, never get squarely addressed. They just get just kicked from one year to the next. Initiative is a good way for the voters to put an end to that pretense. So yes, unequivocally I support initiative. I’m the biggest supporter of direct democracy in Illinois. I think the voters are for it, but a lot of elected officials in the legislature I think unfortunately haven’t embraced it. I have a whole philosophy that if we can’t win binding referendum, then let’s try and do at least advisory referendum. That’s how we won the Citizen Utility Board here, we couldn’t put this idea of CUB on the ballot in 1983 as a binding referendum, so we went out in 114 different communities, like Chicago, and put CUB on as an advisory question, for the people to sort of direct the legislature, “now hear this: do something about utilities! The Citizen Utility Board is what we want you to be doing!” And that worked then, a quarter of a century ago. We got that law passed shortly after the CUB referendums were voted on 1983 in April. I would rather have binding initiative, but if you’ve only got it as advisory, what we’ve been trying to do of late is at least reduce the onerous requirements on referendums that even are advisory. An example would be in Chicago. You can put referendums that are advisory on your precinct ballot or ward ballot, or a group of precincts or wards in Chicago. You can’t do that outside of Chicago, around the rest of the state and we’d like to see that available to all citizens. We’d like to see the signature requirements for environmental advisory referendums go down, to make it easier for people to direct the legislature on what is really the challenge of our time.
C: You mention Chicago. Do you think that that’s been an effective tool of democracy in the city?
PQ: I’ve been pleased by the fact that a variety of issues have sort of bubbled up through this local advisory referendum process. In the old days before precinct referendum or ward referendum, the only thing you could do was the whole city. As a matter of fact I won a lawsuit that reduced the signature requirement, it used to be that 25% of registered voters had to sign your petition to put an advisory question on the ballot in Chicago. That was ridiculous! So we knocked it down to 10%, and recently they knocked it down to 8% of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election, roughly that’s about 5% of registered voters. I think that you have to show public support for a referendum to get it on the ballot, but I don’t believe in all these tricky rules that make it difficult. You know, something like today, like the war in Iraq, people should have a way, in their own precinct, if they want to go around and talk to their neighbors and put something on the ballot to say to President Bush what to do, you know, this is American Democracy. I have a brother who’s a history teacher, he’s been doing that for a while, 25 years, 27 years now, and I got a book not too long ago, and you know, before the Declaration of Independence was written in Philadelphia there in 1776, a lot of local town meetings adopted their own Declaration of Independence from Britain. It was sort of like their version back then of advisory referendum, telling the delegates, the Continental Congress, “Tell King George to hit the road!” And so this is an American invention, really, on how to have popular sovereignty., to have the people calling the shots.
C: You talked a little bit about the rate increases, and what has been going on here in the utility industry here in the state. You’ve been in the press a lot as opposing those increases. Can the state really intervene in this rate hike, and if so, how?
PQ: Well, number one, you should remember that the Illinois Commerce Commission is a creature of the General Assembly. It was created by the General Assembly about 100 years ago to deal with the day-to-day issues of utilities, but the ultimate power is the elected representatives of the people. In the current case, the ICC has really dropped the ball, and has done a very poor job in my opinion in dealing with ComEd and Ameren downstate, and the reverse auction that the ICC blessed, there’s not a word of approval for that in the statutes, you know, they just came up with this out of whole cloth. That reverse auction, I think, is heavily biased against real competition, it artificially raised the procurement prices and raised rates on people. Add to that the companies, both of them got into a lot of I think misleading behavior for their own customers, their own loyal customers. Ameren was telling people “hey go electric! Go all electric!” when they knew that on January 1 the former discounts for electric were going away. People in Southern Illinois - I talked to a woman last night, you know, widows and single moms paying these enormous 300% increases, it’s just really a lousy deal. So I think one, the legislature should step in and roll back the rate to where it was on January 1. Two, make a crystal clear law that the reverse auction is not acceptable for procuring power Three, reform how the ICC operates. Personally I think voters should be able to have retention elections to decide whether commissioners should stay on the commission.
But then the most important thing we’ve got to do after doing the first three is have a comprehensive energy policy for the next generation in Illinois. We’ve got to put in the law requirements that ComEd and Ameren invest in renewable power. They’re very, very resistant to that. We’ve worked on that for years with them, and they’ve just put their heads in the sand. Energy efficiency, they’re not leaders in that, helping their customers become more efficient. The whole area of limiting carbon emissions, we’ve got to be leaders. So this is the moment in time where all these issues come together. The reason I said yesterday I thought the Governor should have a special session and a summit on this, is get these big-time executives, with these huge multi-million dollar salaries from the utility companies, get them around a room, around a desk, sit them down, close the door and lock it. And tell them that we’re going to come out with a policy here that’s going to work for everyday people in Illinois. If you don’t have that kind of tough talking, Teddy Roosevelt approach to straightening these big corporations out, we’re going to be, consumers are going to be waiting while the politicians procrastinate. No more waiting while they procrastinate. We don’t want that.
C: Obviously you’re seen as an advocate of people and taxpayers. You tend to take the side of the little guy. What do you think is the most damaging fiscal policy that the state continues to enforce?
PQ: The biggest problem with Illinois right now is that it has a regressive tax code. Nobody likes paying taxes; April 15 is not my favorite day. Taxes should be based on ability to pay, that’s progressive. Regressive is as you go down the income ladder, the percentage of taxes snatched from the person becomes higher and higher percentages of their income; it’s a system that isn’t based on a person’s ability to pay. I teach tax law at Chicago-Kent Law School, I used to be the State Treasurer, I was the Revenue Director for the City of Chicago and I was also the Tax Appeal Commissioner for Cook County, and I spent a lot of time in college in economics, so these kind of economic issues, to me, I really like grappling with them. It seems to me in our state we have a system where the personal exemption where people can shield some of their income from taxation is never adjusted to inflation. That’s a fundamental failing; the federal tax code always adjusts the personal exemption to inflation, the cost of living. We have an earned income tax credit in Illinois, that’s a good thing, but it’s the most meager amount of tax relief given to working families who are of modest income or are poor. We need to make that much more generous. We need more property tax relief for homeowners, because our system in Illinois is heavily weighted to property taxes it’s the biggest tax in our state. So to me all the talk now, you know the governor wants to raise taxes. When he first announced, he didn’t have a penny of tax relief. Lately he’s talking about, well, he said I raise the tax some more and give you some tax relief. Well to me that’s cart before the horse. I think you should really reform the Illinois tax structure; that should be our mission in the next 60 days. Convince the voters that we can have a fair system with relief to people that need it the most. Those modest income and poor families in Illinois, middle class families, when they get tax relief, their going to spend the money in our economy, they’re not going to mire that money in the bank vault. They’ll spend it locally and help drive our economy. So that’s what I’ve always believed in: close loopholes in the tax code, we have many of them, the code looks like swiss cheese, close it down, use the resulting revenue to cut taxes on ordinary people. I told that to the Governor, he didn’t buy my concept there, but I think my Plan B will be the Plan A before we’re done.
C: What do you say to critics that say closing those loopholes or raising taxes on businesses will chase business out of the state?
PQ: Well, I think a lot of the firms are multi-national firms that do business in every state, and they have been ingenious at using loopholes in the Illinois tax code to shield their income from paying taxes. And the Governor outlined that, I thought very eloquently in his budget address. I said over and over again I thought he described the situation, diagnosed the situation properly. But the remedy, to me, is not to find this esoteric, confusing, complicated, regressive tax, the gross receipts tax, as the remedy for the corporate loophole problem. I think our proposal is to have a taxpayer action board that would be set up to identify the loopholes, recommend that they be closed, the legislature could veto that only like they do with the military base closing commission in Washington; they could vote it down, but if they didn’t the loopholes would be closed in the Illinois tax code, and the resulting revenue could be used, under our plan, for either health, education, or tax relief - and it has to go one-third, one-third, and one-third. I ultimately think that outline, that blueprint, will be what Illinois adopts. I think that’s a much better way to go.
C: When you talk about tax relief and budgets in the State of Illinois, those three things - education, health care and tax relief always seem to come up. On a more local level, what would you propose to solve the transit crisis in the region?
PQ: Well, I take the CTA, and have all my adult life. And I think it really is a crisis. I think the poor service, the trains not always clean as they should be, management leaving a lot to be desired, this should really be addressed. We need the so-called [Regional Transit Authority] to really truly be regional. Too many turf wars between Pace, Metra, CTA, RTA. Given the crisis we have, and the sustainability challenge we have, to have a green way of thinking, where you need to have an excellent public transit system, I think you just can’t hand out money in Springfield to agencies that have been acting in a dysfunctional manner. So I think you have to put some strings on that to get better performance. An example would be a universal pass, which you could use for all transit services, including there’s something we know about called iGo, which is car-sharing. So you have your transit pass, if you wanted to use a car, and use it for an hour, you know you have this not-for-profit entity, and you can get an iGo car, and use your pass to drive for an hour to shop, and then bring it back to where the space is. To me those are the creative solutions we need to have right now.
C: Have you ever considered running for Governor?
PQ: No. No I haven’t.
C: Why not?
PQ: Because I like this job. [Leans forward and picks up a book off the coffee table.] Paul Simon, right below you there, that’s the book. He was an excellent public servant in my opinion. His daughter gave me one of his bowties. [Holds up the bowtie] And Paul Simon was Lieutenant Governor of Illinois. That was his only executive office his whole life. He was State Rep, State Senator, US Congressman, US Senator, and also Lieutenant Governor. And he did that job well. I was in college when he got started, he got sworn in, and he said he wanted to be an ombudsman. I didn’t exactly know what that word meant, so I looked it up. It means the people’s person in Swedish. So that’s what I want to be, in his footsteps. I think this job, you can be the people’s person. This term I intend to really speak out on grievous problems in Illinois. Utility issue we talked about, the tax reform issue, I think ethics is another area that Illinois needs serious improvement in. I ran against George Ryan for Secretary of State in 1994. I lost the election, but I didn’t lose my conscience. I said all the things that were going wrong there. And they came true, well, they all were proved true, let’s put it that way. They were already true, and people found out about them. So I think the election of 2002 was the voters sending a message to clean up the mess of state government, and I don’t think that’s complete. I believe we need campaign finance reform, and the practice of contractors being able to give campaign money to politicians who issue contracts to them. I think we need stronger whistleblower laws at the local level. The state law, we have one, I was involved in getting that passed, but we need one for every local unit of government, including the CTA and RTA, and all the other TA’s out there. And I also think we should have a law that prohibits utilities from making contributions. They’re supposed to be public utilities and they’re running around, acting in their own interest. Those are some of the ethics reforms I’ll be pushing this year.
C: Lieutenant Governor, thank you for you time.
PQ: You’re welcome.