By: Mark Glennon*
A wonderful little story from a former Illinois reporter illustrates so much we should have learned twenty years ago when Pat Quinn was Illinois Treasurer. From Vincent Duffy, now a prominent radio journalist in Michigan:
I was an enthusiastic rookie reporter at an Illinois News Broadcasters Association convention, sitting in a session about making your daily stories even better. I took one bit of advice from that session that I still use today because it often yields great results. That advice: Do the math.
Illinois Treasurer Pat Quinn was traveling around the state touting his newly developed Home Savings Program. He proudly told the assembled press that the Treasurer’s office had boldly created a program, available to the working poor, which allowed people to use a payment schedule to send money to the state and get a special interest rate so they could save for a down payment for a home. It really appeared the state had created a wonderful program to help the working poor become homeowners.
I took my tape and press releases back to the station and remembered the advice: do the math. So I did the math, made some calls, and discovered that after five years, participating in the state program would earn less than six dollars more than if someone simply opened a passbook savings account at the average bank. My story was very different that day than the other outlets that covered Mr. Quinn’s press conferences.
That was no isolated incident. I was practicing law then, working mostly for growing companies raising money. Every few months Treasurer Quinn would announce some new grant, loan or investment program for business expansion. Clients would read about them and call saying, “Hey, it looks like we should qualify for this, so please check it out and apply.” And invariably it would turn out the programs were hot air — they never really got funded or implemented. Yet they were always reported as real, and never questioned even once that I saw.
The first lesson is the one the media should have learned, which is the title of Mr. Duffy’s article: “Be a reporter not a stenographer.”
The stream of press releases from Quinn as governor continues, and most go unquestioned. But now, Quinn has taxpayer money to use.
Try Googling “Governor Quinn announces.” You’ll find hundreds of press releases and related stories that just regurgitate the press releases. Many are about spending money under the ridiculously named “Jobs Now” program passed in 2009 (with bipartisan support) and sold to the public as a quick fiscal stimulus to fight the recession. That program is now used by Quinn as a PR tool for handing out cash borrowed from our kids through the bond program that funded it.
Linked here is an example of one of those articles from a couple weeks ago announcing $1 million for the Brookfield Zoo, basically a reprint of Quinn’s press release. It says the 2009 Jobs Now program will support more than 439,000 jobs over six years. Really? There are only about 6.1 million jobs in all of Illinois. One of every 14 of them would be supported by that program? Total payroll jobs in all of Illinois haven’t increased anything close to that since 2009, and may be negative depending on who is counting and if you discount all the new part time jobs. And most of the Jobs Now jobs are temporary construction jobs, a major point routinely overlooked in job creation claims. Even if that huge jobs claim were correct it would amount to about $70,000, which is a stiff price to pay for taxpayers.
The worst was four years ago. If only somebody had questioned it: Governor Quinn Announces $50 Million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative Comprehensive Effort will Keep Young People Safe; Offer Mentoring, Job Opportunities — the scandal plagued NRI anti-violence program.
The second lesson is as Mr. Duffy wrote, “do the math,” and it goes far beyond knocking Quinn or his press releases. Republican Jim Edgar was governor when Quinn was Treasurer, and it was Edgar and a Republican legislature who went on to implement the “Edgar Ramp,” one of the most horrid chapters of can-kicking contributing to our pension crisis. Had we done the math on it we’d have seen the time bomb.
Today, most of Illinois still hasn’t really done the math and recognized the full severity of the state’s fiscal disaster, a central theme we try to cover on this site. Our fiscal model is fundamentally broken. We are not generating the jobs and growth needed to pay for the promises state and local governments have made. Not by a long shot. The math just doesn’t work.
And as for Quinn, credit former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington for understanding him even before his time as Treasurer. Based on Quinn’s performance as Chicago’s Revenue Director in the 1980s, Washington foretold perfectly what was to come from Pat Quinn as Treasurer and as Governor:
Pat Quinn is a totally and completely undisciplined individual who thinks government is nothing but a large easel on which to do his PR work.
*Mark Glennon is founder of WirePoints