Jim Nowlan: We need Edgar Fellows to energize Illinois

October 29, 2018

Editor’s note: This is the seventh and final column on “What the next Illinois governor and legislature must do.”

In an old cartoon, Pogo surveyed the world around him and declared: We have discovered the enemy — and it is us. So it may be in Illinois. We are so glum about our fiscal, tax, political and corruption problems, that many of my friends have given up on Illinois. And their dour attitude is infectious.

We all need a strong dose of Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking, which can also be infectious.

(First, we are not alone in our travails. Many states face big problems. Coastal states are being hammered by more frequent and more ferocious storms. Texas and the Southwest are ever more beastly hot and desperately parched, wondering where their next drop will come from. California has not only punishing taxes but also housing prices that are pushing many out of that state.

(Yet, some states with big problems thrive. Minnesota has an individual income tax top marginal rate that is twice that of our tax: 9.85 percent versus our 4.95 rate. And winters that can be brutal. Yet, Minnesota has a healthy, growing economy and increasing population.)

For most of our state’s history, our great strengths — location in the middle of the country, dense networks of interstate highways and railroads, the nation’s leading airport for domestic and international connections, an incredibly vibrant central-city Chicago, copious surface and underground water supplies and much higher than typical percentages of population with bachelor’s and advanced degrees — have made Illinois a leader among the states in innovation and wealth.

We can regain our leadership status, but it won’t be easy.

First, we have to stabilize and make our state fiscal system predictable for business. The state has for years been running a deficit (more spending than revenue) of around $2 to 3 billion per year. Rep. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock, has proposed a major Illinois budget efficiency and savings commission.

Incredibly, there hasn’t been a serious attempt at this in decades, if ever. Our appropriations (spending authority) process is in shambles — each year (when indeed we have a budget) a small group of legislative leaders gather in secret at the end of a legislative session and hammer out a budget based on last year’s spending.

I doubt Steve’s efforts would result in enough savings to close our deficit gap but, hey, we have to try, and we have to show taxpayers we are serious about our desire to spend their money responsibly.

Second, we have to address the oppressive burden placed on taxpayers by efforts to shore up our underfunded state employees pension system. At present, we are spending each year the equivalent of 30 percent of our individual income tax revenue solely on building up pension assets — beyond the normal cost of each year’s additional pension obligations incurred for employees.

We already have severely reduced future pensions for new employees, and we have tried repeatedly — but been rebuffed by the state’s highest court — to eliminate overly generous benefits, such as the minimum 3 percent annual compounded increases.

I have concluded that the best, most practicable option from an array of terrible ones is to stretch out our efforts to rebuild pension assets. Instead of 90 percent of full funding by 2045, maybe 70 percent by 2055. All benefits would continue to be paid. Our budget crisis is now, not in 2045, when taxpayers would see their pension burden cut dramatically under the present law.

Third, we need to start a process of long-term thinking about where we want to be in 10 to 20 years, and of how to get there. This will require collaboration among lots of experts, as well as of elected officials. This never has been done in Illinois.

To make such a process work, we must reject our toxic, hideously negative, politics-by-billionaires process. Conflict always will be central to politics; resolving conflict is the raison d’etre (alternative: reason for being) of representative government. And we have had stretches in our state’s history of feisty yet ultimately collaborative, bipartisan conflict resolution.

To accomplish the above, the graduates of the Edgar Fellows Program must step up, and soon. What is that, who are they, readers ask?

For the past seven years, former Gov. Jim Edgar has gathered a bipartisan, statewide group of younger, destined-for-success leaders for an intensive week of seminars and across-the-aisle bonding. The Fellows hear from the likes of former Indiana U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar and congressman-cabinet member Ray LaHood, of Peoria, about how to get constructive things done in a civil way.

More than two-thirds of the Fellows have become state legislators, congressmen, mayors and civic leaders. And they have proved they can work together to get things done, as with the recent, complex school funding reform, hammered out by Edgar Fellows in the Legislature of both parties.

The Fellows need to step up their game in a couple of ways. First, convene an annual, big gathering for long-term thinking. Second, start running for the top offices; don’t wait to be anointed by the money bags and political powers that be. Third, remember that it is all about Illinois and your fellow citizens, not about you.

Illinois has all the pieces to be a leader again; we just have to put them together.