GUEST COLUMN • Time For Illinois To Look Forward


The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University asked me to do some noodling about the future of Illinois. I have mentioned this to several friends. The responses: a roll of the eyes, a belly laugh, and a retort that it is too late to do anything about Illinois. Nobody has responded that it is a good use of my time, needs to be done.

Few, it seems, give a whit about our state. Why might this be so?

In the late 19th century, Illinois was the fastest growing state in the nation. Twenty-seven million from around the world were dazzled by the White City on Chicago’s lakefront, the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. We had some swagger then, and maybe so up to the post-war period of my childhood, as synergies between city and fertile countryside made our state one of the richest. But now, we’re in a funk.

There is no “Eyes of Texas Are upon You” to rally us, to bring folks out of their chairs in unison and pride. There is real sense of statehood in Texas, which we lack, maybe because Illinois isn’t a natural community. We are a state of regions: Chicago, of course; the ’burbs; southern Illinois; western Illinois; and so on. When traveling overseas, we aren’t “from Illinois,” but more often from “near Chicago.” We’re not alone; many states share similar regional divisions; think of Tennessee, New York.

Illinois does have big problems: a deadbeat state government, drowning in deficits and debt. Illinois also has a reputation across the country as being one of the most corrupt states. All of which dampens interest in doing business here.

Yet Illinois has great strengths. “In each of the five critical Rs—roads, rails, runways, rivers and routers,” boasts prominent Effingham entrepreneur Jim Schultz, “Illinois is in the top three among the 50 states.”

In addition, Illinois has a strong system of public and private colleges and universities, especially vibrant at the graduate research institution level, critical to innovation and discovery in the future. For example, Marc Andreesen and colleagues at the University of Illinois basically invented internet web browsing, central to everyday lives the world over.

And of course, Illinois is in the middle of the nation; our goods can reach much of the nation in a day’s time. Our per capita personal income is also comfortably above the national average; if our economy were that of a nation, we would rank 19th or so in the world.

Based on this, we should have some swagger. But we don’t.

In addition to beating on ourselves for so long about our negatives, a self-fulfilling prophecy, we simply have never–never-ever thought about our future. I have scoured our history, and I cannot find a single illustration of Illinois ever having done any comprehensive, long-term thinking. There is, for sure, much thinking about metropolitan Chicago, but not about the state, which has different functions from local governments.

Maybe it’s because we have always practiced meat-and-potatoes politics, where elected officials focus laser-like on simply getting to next year, and getting re-elected in two. We’ll worry about the future when it arrives.

Long-term thinking about a positive future doesn’t, of course, make it so. Yet such a process can build goal posts to shoot for, and measure our progress as we go. This is what the impressive former Gov. Mitch Daniels famously did in Indiana, with his dashboard of key indicators, to which he held his team accountable.

We have been in a funk so long, I think our problems in Illinois are basically psychological, even more than political. We need to rally ourselves around our strengths.

One small example: Have our Illinois arts and humanities councils hold a competition among our songwriters to come up with a catchy, upbeat tune about Illinois, one we can all hum along to. “By thy rivers gently flowing. . .” just doesn’t cut it. Don’t laugh—sparks of life, emotion and passion drive achievement.

Second, bring together the half dozen-plus fine think tanks at our public universities and in the nonprofit sector. Have their scholars gaze out the window and brood about the problems–and potential–of the future. Set up some goal posts.

Then, recruit champions for Illinois from the top rungs of business, labor, and civic life to lead us to some swagger, once again.

We are, after all, the Land of Lincoln. We have a lot to live up to.

Jim Nowlan voted for the new Illinois income tax in 1969, as a freshman House member. A former senior fellow at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs, Nowlan has worked for three unindicted Illinois governors.


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