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Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009 04:53 am

Hynes has a decent plan, and a problem

Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes
There were no spectacular backdrops in place when Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes officially announced his campaign for governor the other day.

No pretty pictures for the TV cameras. No gathering of his adoring family who could not keep their enraptured eyes off of him. No flowery rhetoric. No huge crowd. No brass band. No rows of oversized American flags. No razzle dazzle at all, in fact.

Instead, Hynes stood in front of a blue curtain, a single flag and a campaign poster and calmly laid out a plan to cut the state’s budget, raise taxes on annual personal income above the first $200,000, tag certain “luxury” purchases with a new service tax, hike cigarette taxes by a dollar a pack and expand gaming.

That’s not a bad strategy for a Democratic primary.

Hynes can blast Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed 50 percent income tax rate hike on everybody — including the working poor — by pointing to his own, far more “progressive” revenue generating tax hikes. He can placate Democratic interest groups by showing he’s for new revenues.

Hynes’ message of quiet, honest competence versus the loud, bungling dishonesty of the past eleven years might also be a refreshing change for voters.

The budget cuts Hynes proposes (rolling back the state’s operating budget to fiscal year 2005 levels, for instance) won’t go over well with state employee unions like AFSCME, among other Democratic constituency groups. But considering the way Quinn has treated AFSCME this year — demanding contract givebacks and threatening massive layoffs — the union probably has no place else to go in the Democratic primary unless another strong candidate steps into the race.

As for the general election, Hynes said during a conversation after his announcement that his proposal was similar to Barack Obama’s own tax plan during the 2008 campaign and Bill Clinton’s tax proposal from his first presidential bid. As Hynes rightly pointed out, both those guys won.

Even if President Obama’s recent speech on health care manages to turn his listing ship around, the midterm 2010 campaign won’t be like 2008 or 1992.

Illinois voters simply stopped listening to Republicans in this state several years ago. But after years of watching Rod Blagojevich and the perpetual Springfield circus, the GOP message of no tax hikes, budget cuts and ethics reform will probably get a fair hearing next fall.

One couldn’t help but think during Hynes’ announcement about the then-hapless Democrats’ 1994 disaster, when their gubernatorial candidate was constantly whacked for supporting a “42 percent tax hike.” Like that proposal, Hynes’ plan does have real merit, but it’s a big risk for the fall campaign — albeit far less of a risk than Quinn’s own “50 percent tax hike on everybody” plan.

For now, though, Job One for Hynes is winning the primary. And he does appear to have rattled Gov. Quinn. The mere mention of Hynes’ name almost never fails to prompt a flash of anger from the governor. You’d think a guy who released a poll recently showing him leading Hynes 54-26 among likely Democratic primary voters could afford to be more magnanimous. You’d be wrong.

All this means absolutely nothing, however, until Hynes can resolve an issue that threatens his entire candidacy.

While Hynes has always carefully burnished his reputation as a competent administrator, he hasn’t yet been able to shake the allegations that he fell down on the job during one of the most sensational scandals to hit the Chicago-area media market in years.

Comptroller Hynes’ office regulates aspects of the cemetery industry, mainly trust funds. Lately, Hynes has been accused by some of gross negligence for not noticing and stopping problems at the infamous and decrepit Burr Oak Cemetery, which the Cook County Sheriff claims was the scene of a massive scheme to resell already occupied burial plots and stack bodies on top of each other.

The harsh bottom line is Hynes has not yet found a way to effectively address this cemetery issue other than to point out the actual fact that he wasn’t really responsible for the problem. Facts supporting inaction in an alleged massive failure like this are just never enough in the heat of a campaign.

His competency is in serious doubt. Without an effective, legitimate counter-spin, this cemetery issue could easily be Hynes’ undoing in a close election.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.
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