Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dan Hynes: Keeping us awake this time

Posted By on 09.02.09 at 03:37 PM

This morning a reporter asked Dan Hynes about Governor Pat Quinn's proposal to increase the state income tax, and Hynes responded with a flash of sardonic wit.

"When you were talking about Pat Quinn's plan, were you talking about version one, two, or three?" Hynes said.

It's no secret that Hynes is going to try to portray Quinn as a wishy washy flip-flopper as they fight over the 2010 Democratic nomination for governor. But in his first policy speech and press conference as a candidate, Hynes signaled that he's also going to show some passion and personality—qualities notably missing from his losing campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2004.

In fairness, Hynes, the state comptroller, didn't so much lose that bid for the Senate as Barack Obama won it. But at the time I was amazed at how little pizazz he had on the stump, such as the afternoon he stepped into a packed union hall to declare his candidacy—and platitudes about hope and dreams notwithstanding, couldn't actually articulate why he wanted the job.

He sounded a lot different this time around.

This morning he didn't offer the usual something-for-everyone list of campaign promises. Instead, he addressed a room of reporters at a downtown hotel in full-on wonk mode, unveiling a plan to deal with the state's fiscal fiasco [PDF] by immediately cutting about $1.6 billion from the budget, closing tax loopholes, and getting more cash out of gambling licenses—and then by raising the state income tax on people who make more than $200,000 a year.

Not that Hynes cut all the platitudes and campaign standards—he made sure to talk about wanting to protect "working families" and "earn the people's trust," and he repeatedly contrasted his "progressive" tax plan with the "regressive" flat tax currently in place, whose rates Quinn has proposed raising to make up for a deficit in the billions.

"We can ask the wealthiest in our society to pay their fair share," Hynes said.

Still, while there's nothing new in the tax-the-rich playbook, that doesn't mean it won't work. Hynes noted that Illinois is only one of seven states that still has a flat income tax, which has a disproportionate impact on low-income households. He said 97 percent of state residents wouldn't pay any more under his plan, and he emphasized that he's not seeking to raise taxes on businesses. Besides the deficit, the state government is facing a public school funding shortfall and a shaky pension system, to name just two expensive problems. Hynes argued that the state simply has to bring in more revenue—a contention Republicans take issue with but haven't been able to counter with specific, viable proposals.

"We can't cut our way out of this," Hynes said.

Yes, it's typical mainstream Democratic stuff—Quinn actually responded a short time later that he'd had the idea a few years ago but Hynes had opposed it. And Hynes didn't exactly get my spine tingling when he read his speech about it.

But that may not matter. The state is facing a crisis that has something to do with money and lots to do with corruption and incompetence. Pat Quinn stepped into the mess but may not be able to do any more than keep the place from imploding; all Hynes has to do is raise the possibility that he can start moving us out of it. Even if he can't get a crowd chanting "Yes, we can!" he may be able to get people listening—and even chuckling once in a while—if he sticks to sexy stuff like pension reform and taxes.

"I think, given the choice between a harshly regressive tax and a progressive tax, people will choose the progressive tax," he said today. And I don't think he was even trying to be funny.

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