Pat Quinn may be the governor of Illinois, but he's still a carnival barker at heart, as his proposed constitutional amendment shows.
Beset by a variety of serious problems that will require costly and probably unpopular solutions, Gov. Pat Quinn gives every appearance of a beleaguered chief executive.
Even a great governor would have his hands full facing up to this state's fiscal woes, and Quinn has showed during his three years in office that he's not a great governor.
He is, however, a pretty good politician. So Quinn this week reached into his bag of political tricks and came up with a cure for what he claims ails us. He's proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow citizens to pass ethics laws by popular initiative and referendum.
"There is no greater force than everyday people banding together for a cause they believe in. Our citizens must always have a role in keeping our government honest and ethical," he said.
Quinn made his political bones decades ago by touting referendums on all sorts of issues. His greatest personal triumph came when he pushed an ultimately successful effort to eliminate proportional representation in the Illinois House of Representatives, thereby reducing the size of the House by one-third.
Now ensconced in the governor's office, where he's watched his public approval numbers fall, Quinn is trying to generate public excitement by doubling down on the referendum ploy — a referendum that would authorize more referendums.
Quinn is asking state legislators to put on the ballot for the fall election a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would let voters put ethics laws on the ballot for a public vote.
Despite the attractive good government packaging, good government groups say they want to see details before they embrace this effort. That's a good idea because that's where the devil resides.
A couple of years ago, Quinn proposed an amendment that would allow voters to recall the governor — a hangover issue from the days of Quinn predecessor Rod Blagojevich. Voters approved the plan, but an actual recall of the governor is only a remote possibility because the amendment applies restrictive rules to any recall effort.
So beware an ethics amendment that is similarly unworkable. After all, Illinois legislators who might be the target of ethics reform like things the way they are now.
But even assuming this proposal has merit — a significant assumption — it doesn't address Illinois' biggest problem.
State finances are a disaster, and estimated debt is expected to explode over the next five years. Quinn and state legislative leaders are promising they'll tackle that multifaceted problem (pensions, Medicaid, state budget) soon. But they have not shown much appetite for addressing these issues in the past, so there's little real reason to be confident now.
Instead, voters can be confident our elected officials will try to change the subject as they run for re-election. Quinn's referendum on referendums is but one example of this time-honored misdirection play. Keep your eye on the ball.