BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
Pat Quinn, our post-Blagojevich governor, is in the political fight of his populist life.
Without the all-powerful speaker of the House, Mike Madigan, Quinn will lose his admittedly joyless battle to increase the state income tax.
With Madigan on his side, he could win the tax battle and still be doomed, kissing his chance of remaining governor goodbye.
Illinois is about to go over a financial cliff. This year's budget deficit is $9 billion to $12 billion. Our unfunded liabilities and commitments are as much as $132 billion. In other words, we're in the hole $10,000 for every man, woman and child in the state, according to the respected Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago.
Any state official with a backbone will admit, as House Republican leader Tom Cross did the other day, "We can't [budget] cut our way out of this one."
Still, raising the state income tax is a white-hot issue with the capacity to inflame voters, embolden a weakened GOP and sink any chance Quinn has of winning a full term in 2010.
How well Quinn sells a tax increase to voters in his Wednesday budget address in Springfield will matter -- but possibly not enough. Pitching a package of sweeteners -- deductions and exemptions for people who live paycheck to paycheck coupled with a bigger burden for business and high-income earners -- still may not fly.
Without Madigan, it will be dead on arrival.
On the other hand, if Madigan helps pass Quinn's tax package and rescues the state from economic disasters that lie ahead, then his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, won't have to if and when she rolls over Quinn and becomes governor in 2010.
Quinn's risks are huge.
His rewards, potentially, are few.
That's why the governor has to go for broke.
He has to braid his budget rescue with other urgent business.
He has to couple his tax package with honest-to-God campaign finance reform. By that I mean, enough already of the sky-is-the-limit campaign donations where a hundred grand lands in an officeholder's account right around the time a bill passes benefitting the donor. And it also means demanding that donations be registered not within six months of their receipt but within a few days of their fortuitous arrival in some pol's campaign account.
It's all about the M-O-N-E-Y.
It won't matter if Quinn's tax proposal makes things fairer and more equitable for taxpayers unless the legislative foxes who now guard our fiscal henhouse are reined in.
And please, let's remember the budget problems that Quinn is inheriting were brought to us by Madigan and a Democratic-controlled Legislature that passed unbalanced budgets to stick it to fellow Democrat and then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Quinn will need Republican help. And so, whatever he does, he has to demand that retired state employees who get up to 85 percent of their salaries back in pensions begin to pay some of their medical costs, which are 100 percent covered by taxpayers.
It's time for state Democratic officeholders who have their own political dreams to say where they stand -- with Quinn or against him. That especially means you, Lisa Madigan, Dan Hynes and Alexi Giannoulias.
It's time for Quinn's Reform Commission, headed by former U.S. Attorney Pat Collins, to hurry up and write a piece of tough-minded legislation.
And time for the joint legislative ethics commission convened by Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton to admit they're only in business to make sure not too much reform happens when it comes to the money.
And it's time for us citizens to raise holy hell either through yet another group, Change Illinois, or on our own.
We need fairer taxation, cash to pay the state's bills and real campaign finance reform.
Quinn will need to be tougher and smarter than ever before.
Because the sharp knives are out and ready.