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Can Illinois be saved? Some people wonder

Hand-wringing must be replaced by hard choices

Jim Nowlan
Jim Nowlan

I feel compelled by the recent Illinois primary election to revisit the topic of “Can Illinois be saved?” Of course, it can be saved (returned to stability, growth). Whether it will be saved is a different question.

In Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrat J.B. Pritzker, Illinois voters nominated two uninspiring candidates. The election apparently provided impetus for friends of mine to renew with vigor their drumbeat of despair about the future of our state.

I fear many of my friends have shifted their assessment of our state’s future from, “It won’t be saved” to “It can’t be saved.”

That is tragic, and incorrect.

I admit that Illinois has excruciating problems. Billions in unpaid bills; worst credit rating in the nation; and public pension liabilities so great that we have been stealing from fundamental functions like our school and colleges to meet these obligations.

And political dysfunction: Three recent annual legislative sessions without a state budget.

We must address these problems – which are solvable – and change the narrative.

The billions in unpaid bills and unsecured pension obligations cannot be wished away.

The Civic Federation of Chicago, a century-old business group, has provided one roadmap to fiscal stability: Tax most retirement income, and impose stringent cost controls on future spending. Painful? Obviously.

And I’m sure more retirees would depart our state if we taxed their pensions. Fortunately, the outflow would be offset in part by all the young techies and professionals drawn to the remarkably vibrant central city of Chicago.

The albatross of unfunded pension obligations is a tough bird to wrest from our collective neck. The state high court has said we cannot reduce benefits promised by earlier contracts. Yet, there may be possibilities for paring back the annual costs a bit.

Philanthropist Dan Kearney has created a pension reform think tank at the Civic Federation to investigate every such angle that might pass court muster.

And the public narrative must be changed, from moans and hand-wringing to a celebration of our strengths.

For example, Site Selection magazine recently named Illinois the third most attractive state in the nation, after Texas and Ohio, for having the most new and expanded business facilities per capita. And this award is for the second year in a row. Bet you wouldn’t have imagined that.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently inked a huge $8.6 billion expansion deal with major airlines to keep O’Hare the best air hub in the nation for both domestic and international destinations.

Add to this our possibly unparalleled transportation infrastructure in interstates, rail, and water; and our high ranking for percentage of residents with bachelor’s and graduate degrees.

So, our problems can be solved, but will they be? Putting us onto a path to stability will take inspiring, possibly fall-on-one’s-sword leadership.

The term “political leader” is mostly a misnomer. Most of us elect our officials to reflect our views, not to lead us down paths that may be painful, though sometimes necessary.

This may be why John F. Kennedy’s 1955 “Profiles in Courage” has remained so popular. Kennedy recounted stories of U.S. senators who have exhibited uncommon — and unpopular — courage in public life.

Most elected officials, covetous of the personal reaffirmation of re-election, prefer this “leadership strategy”: Figure out where we, the public, is tending, then rush to get out in front of it. And we, the “great beast,” as Alexander Hamilton called the public, prefer nostrums over pain.

Unfortunately, at present, politics is all about the personal egos of Gov. Rauner and Speaker Madigan, rather than about how to save Illinois.

I expect that if Rauner is re-elected, he will continue to “kick the can down the road,” as others before him have done. That is, he will continue to contend that he will solve our problems by somehow cutting taxes, even though his own proposed budget, including our recent state tax boost, is maybe $1 billion to $2 billion in the red.

A Pritzker-Madigan governorship would likely put onto the ballot a constitutional amendment to authorize a progressive income tax, that is, higher rates for higher incomes. The Illinois Constitution says we must tax at a flat, same-for-all rate.

Bottom line: Our problems can be solved, though not without some pain.

Note to readers: Jim Nowlan of Toulon can be reached at jnowlan3@gmail.com.

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