After decades of mismanagement Illinois headed for crash and burn


As I walked a country road near my rural town this past week, a local slowed his pickup alongside me. “We’re moving to Florida, Jim.” He paused, then: “Illinois is not well managed, you know.” Three weeks ago, a hugely successful commodities trader friend, who lives in splendor on a big swath of Lake Michigan in Lake Forest, called: “Jim, we’re moving to Florida. It’s the taxes and the weather. And I can work from there.”

Illinois’ population has grown only slightly since 1970 – from 11.1 million then to 12.67 million today. The U.S. population, meanwhile, has increased from 205.1 million to 328.2 million during that same time. 

People move for many reasons. Weather is obviously part of it, though Minnesota has harsher winters and higher taxes, yet has been gaining population. Minnesota is better managed than Illinois, and citizens there apparently sense it.

Our state has been ineptly managed for a long time. The last good manager was probably Gov. Jim Edgar (1991-98). He was known as “Gov. No,” because people who went into his office to ask for money were told No.

Since then, debt, unfunded pension obligations and deficit spending have piled up to the point our state has the worst credit rating in the nation.

In efforts to find money for pensions and Medicaid health insurance for the low income, Illinois has over the past two decades cut employees, ignored critical information technology needs and shorted both social services and higher education. 

Managing a big, boisterous state is tough, really tough, even without a pandemic.

First, the governor doesn’t alone run the state, as recent Gov. Bruce Rauner learned the hard way. The guv shares power with not only the Legislature but also the state high court and public employee unions.

Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan, in the Legislature for half a century, can kill literally any bill — any bill — he wishes, with but a wave of his hand. A fetter on management.

The Illinois Supreme Court, dominated by Chicago Democrats since 1964, has rejected term limits, pension reform and popular efforts for nonpartisan redistricting — decisions all neatly in line with Madigan’s wishes. More fetters.

By the way, without reform of its ballooning pension obligations, the state will likely never stabilize its budget situation.

Mike Madigan is not an evil guy. He is a product of the Boss Daley political machine, which worked tirelessly to benefit and protect its own, meaning government workers and unions. After all, they are generally Democrats.

That’s fine, but over the years, with the arrogance of dominance, they have gone way too far.

For example, the public employee unions have negotiated such sweetheart contracts — often bargaining with sympathetic governors — that union rules basically manage state agencies day to day.

An illustration: Agency directors are basically unable to recruit top talent from the outside. Union rules say employees — last time I looked 95 percent of all state employees belonged to unions — have first crack at all jobs, even if they aren’t qualified. More fetters.

Gov. JB Pritzker is a decent guy, trying to do a good job, I’m sure, and he didn’t create the present mess. However, born with a gold spoon in his mouth, he appears to take the “spend to solve” approach to government management.

Pritzker has put $56 million of apparently limitless billions into his campaign to enact an amendment in November that would tax the rich at higher rates.

Our fiscal plight is so grave, however, that it cannot be fixed solely by hoisting ever more taxes onto the backs of a few rich people. Our fiscal hole is so deep that, in the short run certainly, more taxes on all of us will be required, something neither side of the political divide will admit.

“Jim, if we don’t pass the governor’s tax proposal, Illinois will crash and burn,” said a Dem friend of mine.

I responded: “Illinois has been ‘crashing and burning’ for years now — in slow motion.”

An abrupt crash-and-burn scenario might just startle governor, lawmakers, and the state high court into dramatic actions, which could unshackle some of the fetters on management of our state. If not, our elected officials will simply kick the can down the road, as ever, and population flight will continue.

After all, Illinois is not well managed, as my Florida-bound friend observed.

Jim Nowlan is the lead co-author, with J. Thomas Johnson, of “Fixing Illinois: Politics and Policy in the Prairie State” (University of Illinois Press, 2014)

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