State Senator Heather Steans has a tongue-in-cheek plan for ending the stalemate between her Democratic colleagues and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner over taxes, spending and pro-business reforms:
Lock a handful of thoughtful and reasonable lawmakers from both parties in a room for 24 hours and let them hammer out a compromise.
"It’s not rocket science," she points out.
Her comments came at a recent luncheon hosted by our friends and allies at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a nonprofit organization that invited half a dozen current and former state officials with good government credentials to share their "vision for Illinois"—a vision invariably clouded by an epidemic of unbalanced budgets and underfunded pension plans around the state.
Steans, whose Chicago district winds through several neighborhoods on the North Lakefront, relied on levity again when she encouraged public officials facing fiscal nightmares to follow the advice of a fictitious financial planner in a "Saturday Night Live" skit:
"Don’t buy stuff you cannot afford."
Or, in "government-speak," don’t hire new workers, increase employee compensation and benefits, and expand programs and services, unless you have enough revenue to cover the costs.
The City of Chicago, its Board of Education, the State of Illinois, and dozens of smaller municipalities, school districts and branches of government around the state wantonly ignored that admonition, so here we are.
Another speaker at the ICPR luncheon was Steans’ Senate colleague Matt Murphy, a Northwest Suburban Republican who stressed the importance of improving the state’s economic health by adopting parts of Rauner’s "turnaround agenda."
‘’Things have to change," Murphy says.
An important long-term change, according to moderate Republican Corinne Wood, a former lieutenant governor, is to attract more good government candidates, give voters better choices, and make Illinois House and Senate races more competitive, by taking the power to establish legislative district boundaries, and the gerrymandering it invites, out of the hands of the politicians.
The state’s former executive inspector general, Ricardo Meza, says government would be more honest, efficient and transparent if lawmakers had a clearer understanding of what ethical behavior requires, faced stiffer consequences for lapses, and served in the public interest instead of self-interest.
State Senator Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat and a leader in the fight for pension reform, says serious negotiations with public employee unions, and some voluntary concessions, can go along way toward a solution that passes legal muster.
"We need to get real," Biss adds.
Biss’s Democratic colleague, Senator Kwame Raoul, who represents President Obama’s old South Side district, laments the state’s shabby treatment of Illinois’ most vulnerable residents—many of them Black and Latino—by, among other things, mishandling too many law enforcement and criminal justice issues.
He says it was unfair to cancel anti-violence grants in low-income neighborhoods simply because they were poorly administrated by community groups that lacked the necessary staffing and expertise.
Raoul notes that, "even the Red Cross has imperfections."
You may have noticed the luncheon participants aren’t exactly household names—no Madigans, Cullertons or Rauners among them.
But they offer up good ideas, sincere sentiments and, perhaps most encouraging, commitments to bipartisan cooperation.
It makes me think we’d see more progress in Springfield on the big issues if the leaders whose names we do recognize would start listening to their lesser-known rank-and-file colleagues, starting with the speakers at the ICPR luncheon.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.