End and Means: Revisiting Old Issues Creates Writer's Sense of Deja Vu

Jan 1, 2014

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
As 2014 dawns, the new year brings with it a personal milestone for yours truly — the start of my 31st year as an Illinois Issues columnist. Since January 1984, I’ve had the privilege of sharing my observations about Illinois government and politics with you, the magazine’s loyal readers, in more than 300 columns, by my reckoning.

So I thought some reflection might be in order, if you’ll bear with me, along the lines of the more things change, the more they stay the same, to quote the old French proverb.

The most obvious change, of course, has been the advance of technology. My first column was typed on a manual typewriter and the manuscript hand-delivered to the late Caroline Gherardini, then the magazine’s editor. This one was written on a computer and emailed to Executive Editor Dana Heupel. Another change is that the magazine’s December edition is now published entirely online.

Back when I started, I was a Statehouse correspondent for the Chicago Sun-Times, used to tracking down paper copies of bills, amendments, roll calls and the like from the offices of the House clerk or the Senate secretary. Now, such legislative grist is available online 24-7, anywhere in the world, and you can watch lawmakers in action through the chambers’ streaming video.

Mechanics aside, a lot has happened issues-wise as well, for better or for worse, depending on your point of view. Consider just three recent sea changes from the status quo at this column’s debut 30 years ago:

  • Gay rights. In 1984, Illinois was still some two decades away from outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation, a provision added in 2005 to existing protections for race, gender, age, ethnic origin and similar characteristics. Just a few weeks ago, Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation authorizing same-sex marriage.
  • Death penalty. In 1984, public support for capital punishment was strong, leading up to the state’s first execution in 1990. Charles Walker, put to death for the 1983 fatal shootings of a young Metro East couple, was the first of 12 men executed before Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium in 2000 following disturbing reports of innocent men on death row. Ryan ultimately commuted 167 death sentences to life without parole two days before he left office in 2003, and eight years later, Quinn signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in Illinois.
  • Concealed carry. In 1984, no end was in sight to the ongoing standoff between Second Amendment advocates and gun-control activists over allowing private citizens to carry firearms.

Late in 2012, a federal appellate panel ruled unconstitutional the state’s ban on concealed carry, and last July, lawmakers gave final approval to a measure to allow private citizens who meet certain requirements to be armed in most places.

The trio is but a sampling of the dozens of other significant changes the state has seen over the years. But revisiting that very first column also invokes a sense of deja vu.

One noteworthy item, for example, was the future of the temporary income tax increase scheduled to expire on June 30, 1984, as well as the fate in that year’s March primary elections of legislators who voted for it. History shows that income tax rates fell back to their original levels, of course, with the revenue loss partially offset by a penny increase in the state’s sales tax. Lawmakers who supported Gov. Jim Thompson’s tax hike actually fared better the next time they faced voters than did the measure’s opponents, while the governor himself won an unprecedented fourth term in 1986.

Thirty years later, a major question for the state — one which Quinn and his four Republican challengers have taken pains to duck — is whether current income tax rates should drop back as scheduled a year from now. Whether constituents would forgive lawmakers who voted to impose the temporary tax hike in 2011 was answered in the 2012 election, when every one of the 59 yes votes who sought another term — all Democrats — won, most without Republican opposition.

Another theme that’s still current: The statewide Republican party’s ideological schizophrenia is visible again, the column noted, although the 1984 reference was to a potentially bloody U.S. Senate primary between incumbent Sen. Charles Percy, a moderate before the term became an epithet with a large swath of the GOP base, and conservative U.S. Rep. Tom Corcoran. Percy defeated Corcoran handily but lost in November to then-U.S. Rep. Paul Simon by 89,000 votes out of almost 5 million cast.

Thirty years later, the party still is riven by ideological differences, although moderates now seem a distinct minority as hard-core conservatives grow in influence. A useful example: same-sex marriage. Conservative GOP leaders forced out GOP state chairman Pat Brady because he supported the notion, and two of the three House Republicans who voted for the bill drew socially conservative primary challengers. The third, former House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego, faces a conservative opponent in his bid for the GOP nomination for state treasurer.

Other issues not only remain on the table but have become more pressing with time, none more so than funding for the state’s five retirement systems, which had unfunded liabilities totaling more than $97 billion and a 41 percent funding ratio at the end of Fiscal Year 2013. The shortfall finally prompted the legislature to pass and Quinn to sign last month a measure that would strip some $160 billion in benefits now promised to public workers as part of a plan to achieve full funding in 30 years.

The funding ratio was better in 1984 — close to 50 percent — but that era’s fiscal practices helped cause the current crisis. For much of Thompson’s tenure, the amount the state put into the retirement kitty each year was based not on actuarially determined estimates of future costs, but rather on 50 or 60 percent of payout — retirement checks actually sent out in a given year. No one paid much attention back then, however, as other needs commanded more attention.

Some of them are still pressing problems. To name a couple:

  • How to beef up state financial support for public schools. Thirty years ago, officials worried that the state picked up only 38 percent of the costs of K-12 education; since then, the slice has slipped to less than a third.
  • How to deal with prison crowding. Driven in large part by the new War on Drugs, Illinois in 1984 was in the early stages of a prison-building spree — ultimately 21 new adult facilities in 26 years — to deal with a prison population that had grown to almost 16,000 inmates that January, about 230 more than the existing prisons were designed to hold. Despite concerns about crowding back then, those actually turned out to be the good old days. Illinois prisons now hold almost 49,000 inmates, 52 percent more than their 32,000-inmate design capacity.

And one final proof of the old French proverb’s wisdom: When this column first appeared in January 1984, a young Chicago Democrat was starting his second year as House speaker. His name? Michael J. Madigan.

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. 

Illinois Issues, January 2014