Stateline Story

Crises Come Quick for Nation's Newest Gov

  • February 25, 2009
  • By Daniel C. Vock

The nation's newest governor, Democrat Pat Quinn of Illinois, walked the hallways at the National Governors Association meeting in Washington, D.C., last weekend largely unnoticed by reporters or advocates who sidled up to just about every other governor. He's still getting to know his own staff.

But back home, having barely finished his third week in office, he's in the thick of it.

"There are such huge crises in Illinois," Quinn told Stateline.org during a break in the governors' meeting. "Ethics is first, the integrity crisis. And then we have to deal with this economic crisis, which affects every state. Then the fiscal crisis manifests itself from the economic crisis. So we have three things at once, and I have to come up with a good rescue plan."

It's little surprise ethics topped his list considering the dizzying sequence of events that thrust Quinn into Illinois' executive mansion, even as Illinois confronts a $9 billion budget deficit ( PDF ) through the end of next fiscal year.

"It's just like jumping on a speeding train," Quinn said. "I've done that before."

Quinn became governor Jan. 29 after the Illinois Senate voted unanimously to remove his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, in the state's first impeachment trial of a governor. Blagojevich faces federal prosecution for supposedly trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama. He is also accused of trying to pressure businesses, including a children's hospital, into donating to his campaign fund in return for state money.

But charges of unethical conduct continue even after Blagojevich's removal. Quinn and several other state leaders have urged U.S. Sen. Roland Burris (D) to resign, after Burris revealed that he lobbied Blagojevich and top aides more extensively than he let on in statements to both an Illinois House impeachment committee and the state Supreme Court.

While the governors meeting focused in large part on building the nation's infrastructure, Illinois hasn't approved a major public works program in a decade. Part of the problem was Blagojevich's strained relationship with legislators, but funding remained a major stumbling block. Now, lawmakers there are floating the idea of using a gas tax to pay for it.

But after talking with fellow governors about how to pay for infrastructure improvements, Quinn said a gas tax hike sounds "counterproductive."

"If we want to wean ourselves from a petroleum-based economy, then we can't be using that particular source of funding to invest in the things we need to do to become energy-efficient," he said.

The governor, who plans to run for re-election in 2010, said he's "never been excited" about the gas tax because it is an excise tax that isn't based on a customer's ability to pay. But the idea of the gas tax as a user tax, to pay for infrastructure doesn't make sense, because infrastructure is more than just roads, he said.

Quinn suggested that infrastructure plans should include non-transportation items - such as laying fiber optic lines along highways - to promote telemedicine, online education and Internet commerce.