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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009 10:56 pm

Quinn’s chief of staff choice means change is on the way

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Gov. Pat Quinn’s choice of Jerry Stermer as his new chief of staff tells us a lot about what’s going to happen soon.

As the head of the advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children for the past 22 years, Stermer has been a tireless advocate for progressive tax reform and expansion of human services and education programs.

If this was anybody else working for any other governor you might think that Stermer would be the perfect choice to deliver the bad news to Medicaid providers, education lobbyists and liberals of all stripes that their agenda just wasn’t affordable in the face of Illinois’ horrific budget deficit mess. But almost nobody believes that will be Stermer’s role. It’s doubtful that Stermer, 65, took this job so he could cap his career as a bad guy after working most of his life to expand programs near to his heart.

Instead, Stermer’s appointment reinforces the belief at the Statehouse that Quinn will unveil a “temporary” income tax hike of one or two points next month during his budget address, coupled with increased exemptions for individuals and families and a much higher Earned Income Tax Credit to make the tax hike more progressive. There might even be some tax relief component as well, perhaps for property taxes. Stermer and Quinn have both pushed those ideas for years. The tax hike would reportedly be followed by a constitutional amendment referendum in 2010 to institute a “true” progressive income tax.

Also, it’s widely expected that Quinn will push to close numerous corporate “loopholes” that he’s worked so hard to expose over the years. The General Assembly has been mostly hostile to those ideas when they were proposed by Rod Blagojevich during far more fruitful economic times. Whacking retailers over the amount of sales tax revenue they can keep for administrative expenses, for instance, probably won’t go over too well during a time when retailers are closing up shop all over the state.

Stermer is much more of an advocate than an administrator, and many insiders believe that Quinn will take the actual helm of running the government himself and use Stermer more as a policy chief.

Quinn reportedly mulled acting as his own chief of staff last month, but was talked out of it by friends, sources said weeks ago. He has long been known as a micromanager, and not exactly in a good way. The governor’s management history has many of his old friends worried sick about how he’ll handle this new job, and they’ve been spilling their guts over the past four or five days about why they feel this way. I’ve heard horror stories about Quinn’s management style that would make your hair stand on end.

That sort of behavior is no big deal in the tiny lieutenant governor’s office, but it’s a huge deal now that he’s at the helm of a gigantic bureaucracy. Many longtime Quinn associates were hoping the governor would choose a strong administrator as chief of staff to get the bureaucracy in line and try to put the brakes on spending. Bureaucracies will mostly run themselves, but they won’t do it well, particularly in times of fiscal crisis when a strong hand is needed at the top to make sure that agencies aren’t overspending or straying from the program.

Every new governor faces two important tasks right off the bat. They have to figure out what sort of governor they want to be, which usually becomes apparent to the public and themselves during long political campaigns. Quinn, of course, was dropped into office without having to face that illuminating event. But new governors also have to get their heads around what, exactly, a governor needs to do to be a successful manager.

The appointment of Stermer likely shows us what kind of governor Quinn will be: A progressive who wants to expand government to help people in need and fight against the ruling class. But we still don’t know quite yet if Quinn fully understands his management role.

Yes, it’s early. He’s only been in office a couple of weeks. But it’s difficult to overstate the problems the government is facing right now, and most of the people who know Quinn the best are not even close to being convinced that he fully comprehends the task at hand. And if they’re that worried, then we should all be concerned.

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