Editor's Note: Authors Contemplate How to Fix the Funk in Illinois

May 1, 2014

Maureen Foertsch McKinney
Credit mattpenning.com 2014 / WUIS - Illinois Issues
 Illinois is in a funk. It’s clear.

Last month, a Gallup survey found by a wide margin Illinoisans are less trusting of their state government than residents of any other place in the nation. 

Just 28 percent of Illinois residents surveyed reported trusting their state government a “great deal” or even a “fair amount.” In its report about the poll that had interviews of at least 600 voters in all 50 states, Gallup wrote: “Illinois’ position at the bottom of the list in residents’ trust in state government is not surprising, given that its last two governors, Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan, were sentenced to jail for crimes committed while in office. Two prior Illinois governors from the 1960s and 1970s also went to jail.

“Additionally, the Illinois economy remains shaky and the state government continues to struggle to balance the budget, even after a significant income tax increase a few years ago. That tax hike is set to expire, but the governor is pushing to make it permanent. Last year, the state also passed controversial pension reforms for state workers that are being challenged in court.”

Another national survey — this one in 2012 from Raleigh, N.C.-based Public Policy Polling — found that Illinois was nearly the least-liked state in the nation. Only California faired worse.

“Things are not good in Illinois, and they don’t appear to be getting better,” is how a pair of longtime close observers of what goes on in the state put it.

That no-nonsense line was written by James D. Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson, in a book called Fixing Illinois: Politics and Policy in the Prairie State, which will be published by the University of Illinois Press in June. 

But there’s hope, they say. “Illinois still has the strengths that made it great,” write Nowlan — a former state lawmaker, gubernatorial adviser and current vice chairman of the Illinois Ethics Commission — and Johnson — former director of the Illinois Department of Revenue and president emeritus of the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois. “Most states would be envious of what Illinois has. We have a prime location in the center of the country, and most markets are but a day away on our unparalleled infrastructure of interstates, rail, air and water.”

“We think a lot of our state, and rue the observations of out-of-staters when we meet them” who ask questions such as “how many of your governors are in jail now?” says Nowlan, who now publishes a couple of newspapers in Stark County and writes a column on understanding Illinois that appears in 20 papers in the state. He and Johnson have a combined 80 years of experience bouncing around Illinois government, education, politics and public service.

Nowlan says he recalls growing up in the ’40s and ’50s in west central Toulon and being proud of his home state. He’s still proud, but it’s not so easy to be so.

Nowlan describes the 170-some-page book as a primer on state government with a list of approximately 90 suggestions: “Tom and I felt the book might inject some substance into a campaign season that might otherwise be devoid of such.

“We hope the suggestions and the primer will focus a conversation on where we ought to be heading and how we might reach that point into the future when we can begin to once again to think with pride about our state,’’ says Nowlan, who served for many years as a fellow in the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs and has taught at several colleges in the state, including the U of I campuses in Champaign and Chicago, Knox College, and Northern Illinois and Western Illinois universities.

“We simply think of the book as a conversation starter,’’ he says. “I think if we were to focus on the big picture item within, we need to improve our business climate; we need to stabilize and make predictable our fiscal system and to change the perception in and out that Illinois is a corrupt place to do business.” An overarching theme in Fixing Illinois is the need for comprehensive planning for the state.

“I think more important than our recommendations and suggestions would be this effort to determine where we want to go and how we’re going to get there,” Nowlan says. “Illinois has no statewide planning or visioning process either formal or informal.’’

Such a planning dearth doesn’t apply to the city of Chicago or the Chicagoland area, where entities such as the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and Chicago Metropolis 2020 (now known as Metropolis Strategies), and the Metropolitan Planning Council have operated for years.

As Nowlan says, those organizations tend to focus on local rather than state functions such as education, human services and infrastructure. “I think we need to think about our bicentennial, which is just around the corner,’’ he says, calling 2018, a “good handle to tie some of those interests around. The bicentennial is the perfect rationale for doing this thing.”

Speaking of issues such as the budget crisis, Nowlan says, “These are gripping kinds of problems. I don’t want to diminish the daunting challenges of establishing budget stability and predictability, which I think is so critical to business both within the state and business that might be interested in locating to the state.

“Certainly, these problems are time-consuming and preoccupying, but it shouldn’t divert us from a separate process of longer-term thinking, which brings the best of the state’s thinkers within government and the academe and business and civic communities together to look ahead,’’ he says.

“We have great strengths in Illinois, which are underappreciated, especially in a period in which we’d gotten kind of in a funk about our state. But we can build on those strengths to revive our spirits, as well as maybe our fortunes as a state.”

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A sampling of suggestions from Fixing Illinois:

  • Require that all expenditures of funds for liabilities incurred in a given year be paid from appropriations for that year only. 
  • Eliminate transfers from most state funds. 
  • Consolidate Illinois’ 377 elementary districts into their 99 overlying high school districts. 
  • Move to a year-round school calendar with about 200 days. 
  • Develop a modern information technology system for human services in which all agencies share information about a virtual client. 
  • Reduce the corporate income tax from 9.5 percent to 7.3 percent, the rate prior to the tax increases of 2011. 
  • Begin to create a new multiyear transportation funding program. 
  • End diversion of transportation-related revenues to general governmental purposes. 
  • Make violations of the Illinois General Assembly’s Code of Conduct punishable by fines, public reporting and censure. 
  • Require that at least one semester of the social science courses in high schools be devoted to American government and civics and provide lesson plans for social science teachers that cover ethics in personal life and government. 
  • Enact a revolving-door prohibition for Illinois state legislators, barring them from lobbying members of the General Assembly for at least one year after they leave the legislature. 

Illinois Issues, May 2014