A statewide series of forums this year found plenty of concern about the direction Illinois is heading. But we also found work is being done at the local level to solve some of the problems.
As moderator of all eleven forums, I heard a similar question over and over.
"Why do you suppose that with the State of Illinois in such a severe financial crisis, that voters continue to elect people who get down to Springfield and get nothing done?" asked Chris Bowers at our Naperville event, echoing what others across Illinois wonder about.
Much of the finger pointing for Illinois’ situation was directed at those who hold office. Democrats and Republicans.
Illinois is a diverse state with a lot of advantages. But with state government coming off a long budget impasse that saw its backlog of unpaid bills skyrocket as well as chronic underfunding of public employee pensions, many of the people appear to have lost faith in a turnaround. A recent University of Illinois Springfield/NPR Illinois survey backed up that observation as it found 3 out of 4 people in Illinois see the state on the wrong track
But former Governor Jim Edgar, who joined our first panel in Springfield, did offer some hope:
"I have to say it’s better now than it was a year ago," he said. "Now it’s still terrible, but it’s better."
Edgar was referring to the reinstatement of a higher income tax rate and approval of a budget ending that impasse. A few Republicans broke withn the governor and sided with Democrats to get that done.
"Those rank and file legislators were hearing from their constituents. People were really upset because they were hurting. Not having a budget for two years was the worst thing I have ever seen in my 50 years. I thought it was worse than the Blagojevich years, by far,” Edgar remarked.
But taxes, especially property taxes, are a major gripe. Some said they’re being taxed to death. And while they seem to understand the need to pay for services, they worry about being asked to pick up a larger tab with no relief in sight.
Those costs are mostly tied to K-12 education. And the inequity in educational offerings is a result of the overreliance on property taxes.
"Districts with property wealth, especially in Chicago and the suburbs, have significant resources to train kids for 21st century jobs," said Beth Crider, the Regional Superintendent for Peoria County. "Now we're finding those kids are leaving Illinois to go to college outside of the state and research proves they stay away once they leave."
Throughout Illinois, there is also a growing fear about loss of population. Outside of the Chicago area, we heard from many residents who say there is no reason for younger people to settle down there, even in towns where they were born and raised.
Illinois lost more people in 2016 than any other state. The exodus has an impact on the tax base and available workforce while also contributing to an overall malaise.
Candace Larson from Alton believes she knows where to lay the blame for all the problems.
"I think it all stems from career politicians. They are more interested in keeping their jobs and power intact rather than solving problems," she said.
Professor of Political Science Stephen Maynard Caliendo with North Central College said the reasons are likely more complex. But he admits leadership plays a role.
"It’s not that I love my job, I love my neighborhood, I love my school, but man, Madigan is really making me mad so I’m going to move to Wisconsin. It typically doesn’t work that way," he said. "But if because there is dysfunction in the state and the result is a budget crisis that makes the environment more difficult to operate, or the schools become less strong, then other places look more attractive."
Some voices we heard mentioned the state has a reputation as being bad for business. Taxes, regulations, worker’s compensation costs, they said, are driving employers and jobs elsewhere.
"When you look at the cost of doing business in Illinois, it’s materially higher than some of the surrounding states. What do we need to do to attract businesses to Illinois?" asked Bill Bloom of Rock Island.
Well, for one, better training of the workforce.
McLean County's Chamber of Commerce Government and Public Affairs manager John Walsh agrees.
"We are seeing companies investing their own funds into their own training facilities because they are having that much of a struggle finding a workforce," he said.
That was also the topic in Rockford, where we heard about collaborations among higher education and companies. The point is to provide the training so that employers want to come to Illinois.
Rockford has seen a turnaround with the rise of the aerospace industry in that region.
"The past recession was pretty hard on us and it's taken a while to come back. But I would say the community is in a much stronger position to deal with the problems than it was 25 years ago," according to Brian Harger, Research Associate of Economic Development at the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University.
In Galesburg, a town with a proud history of manufacturing, the closure of a large Maytag plant in 2004 is still being felt. At one point much earlier, it employed up to 5,000 people. Many other communities are in the same situation, lamenting the loss of what were good paying jobs. But Galesburg is moving on, according to Ken Springer, President of the Knox County Area Partnership for Economic Development.
"I think it’s important we keep our eyes down the road and not try to recreate the past that may not be compatible with where the current economy is and what our community assets are. I mean it’s important to celebrate history but I think we always have to be looking forward.”
"The strategy you're seeing in Knox County and the greater Galesburg area is to rebuild our economy in a multi-industry approach, instead of looking at a one to one replacement for those manufacturing jobs," Springer said.
Throughout the visits, we got an earful, especially about what many feel the state is doing wrong. But we also found there are places where more positive things are happening. Local leaders are stepping up. Jennifer Olsen is President and CEO of the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce.
"I think sometimes we’re our own worst enemy because all we want to do is tell negative stories. We need to be talking about the businesses that had success here,” she said.
You can watch video of all the forums here.