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What Happened to Illinois?

What Happened to the Once Great State of Illinois?

Illinois is broke, corrupt and dying economically.

Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Everett Dirksen are likely rolling in their graves.

You can find this once great state at the bottom of most rankings of economic and fiscal indicators among the 50 states. One category where Illinois is No. 2: outmigration. Want a stat, beyond the numbingly-astronomical unfunded pension and healthcare obligation the state has? Former North Shore resident David Burge shared one recently. Burge’s current home of Austin, Texas, has a fraction of the Chicago metropolitan area’s population, but has almost lapped us in home starts this past year: 14,000 to 7,500.

Truth in Accounting estimates Illinois has unfunded pension and health care obligations of approximately $182 billion. The state hasn’t had a truly balanced budget since 2001, and with a total estimated debt of about $235 billion, each taxpayer’s share of the debt tops $50,400.

If there’s a way out, it is likely through bankruptcy. So says Wilmette’s Mark Glennon, the founder and publisher of Wirepoints. Wirepoints, Truth in Accounting, and the Illinois Policy Institute have as good a handle on the severity of Illinois’s problem as you will find anywhere.

How Did We Get Here? 

Here’s a quick tour.

Start with the 1970 Constitutional convention where delegates included language that state and municipal employee benefits are contractual and cannot be “diminished or impaired.” While some delegates presciently figured the language could handcuff state government, the language stayed in, thanks in no small part to a 28-year-old delegate from the Southwest Side: Michael Madigan.

Since then, there have been many errors by the General Assembly and Governor’s Office, but one was Gov. Jim Thompson agreeing to a 3 percent annual COLA adjustment for pensions in 1989 (remember, you can’t diminish them), Gov. Jim Edgar and Speaker of the House Michael Madigan agreeing to a “pension ramp” in 1995, wherein the state’s pension payments would be low for the first several years before ballooning to untenable levels. Today, our pension payments make up a quarter of the state budget.

The state took several “pension holidays” over the years to give the appearance of a balanced budget, many times during the Rod Blagojevich Administration.

There were faulty assumptions that interest rates would be higher, and two crippling market adjustments: the dot-com bust of 2000 and the financial crisis of 2008. Finally, the State Board of Investments for years allowed political considerations drive investments. The Board had millions of dollars in managed funds with high fees. The Board also invested in a bond fund that was run by organized labor and invested in union projects. More than half of that position was in cash.

More recently Gov. Rauner took office and put some elite financial managers on the Board like Wilmette resident Marc Levine. It may be too little too late.

A Two Party State Becomes a One-Party State

When George H.W. Bush won Illinois in 1988, it marked the sixth consecutive time that the Republican nominee for president captured Illinois. At the time, Illinois did not have a Republican senator, but the congressional delegation included national leaders like Bob Michel, Phil Crane, Henry Hyde, Lynne Martin, John Porter, and Dennis Hastert.

Statewide, Democrats controlled the General Assembly, but Republican Jim Thompson was in the midst of his third four-year term (he served a two-year term from 1977 to 1979). Thompson was succeeded by Jim Edgar, who after two terms was succeeded by George Ryan. In the midst of Edgar’s tenure, the Republicans actually controlled both the House and Senate — from 1995 to 1997.

Today, just seven of Illinois’ 18 members of Congress are Republican. While the Governor’s office is controlled by a Republican, the rest of the elected constitutional offices are not. The Democrats in the General Assembly are just short of a veto-proof majority, and the top leadership among Illinois Republicans has an extremely high turnover rate.

When Hillary Clinton won Illinois last November, it was the seventh straight time the Democratic presidential candidate won this state.

The Republican party in Illinois has been crippled for most of the 21st century. Looking at the list of the luminaries on the GOP side in 1988, the problems are evident. Phil Crane, a conservative stalwart who actually ran to the right of Reagan in 1980, had faded into a has-been by 1988. Bob Michel was nearing retirement. Lynne Martin soon found herself working in the Bush administration before an unsuccessful Senate run against Paul Simon. John Porter was a moderate in the moderate 10th District, and prided himself on bipartisanship, not thought leadership within his party.

Henry Hyde remained relevant until he left Congress in 2007. Dennis Hastert quickly gained influence in Congress, ascending to Speaker amid the chaos of Speaker-elect Robert Livingston resigning during House debate on Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Hastert had the reputation of building consensus and getting along, and his tenure as Speaker was marked by wasteful spending and earmarks that embarrassed the party. The recent revelations about Hastert only add to the universal disgust of him.

Republican Governors Thompson, Edgar, and Ryan won election with reputations of working with the Democrats. In 1990, Mayor Richard Daley famously was quoted as saying that he could work with Edgar during Edgar’s gubernatorial campaign against Neil Hartigan. In 1998, Daley tepidly supported Poshard, but George Ryan pleased the unions when he unveiled a massive capital bill, “Illinois First.”

Ryan’s troubles continued to mount, and soon after leaving office, he was convicted in federal court, becoming the third of the previous seven governors to serve time in a federal prison. Ryan’s conviction – and the convictions of Republican operatives like Scott Fawell and Stuart Levine — stung because it removed the illusion that only the Democrats were corrupt.

Fawell, a serial abuser of power who traded on his name, and Levine, a meth-addicted playboy who stole tens of millions of public funds, were corrupt to a degree that it challenged the imagination. Why would voters elect the next Republican nominee, particularly one whose last name was also Ryan? Predictably, Attorney General Jim Ryan lost his bid to Governor to future jailbird Rod Blagojevich.

When Pat Quinn beat Bill Brady for Governor in 2010, it gave Democrats complete control over the legislative map. The districts as drawn today make it next to impossible for Republicans to control either chamber of the General Assembly. Even with a Republican Governor in office, the state continues to be run by Democrats. Witness Governor Rauner’s two crowning achievements: signing an education funding bill written by Mike Madigan, and signing one the nation’s most liberal abortion laws.

So here we are today, with the state’s fiscal position worse than ever, our economy growing at a slower rate than any of our Midwestern neighbors, and a now a Democratic governor,. House and Senate

This is how we got here. But we don’t have to stay here!

  • Let your local representatives hear from you;
  • Support candidates and primary challengers that will change the status quo;
  • Write letters to the editor, send entries into The Patch, and share your postings in social media;
  • Don’t be intimidated – be active in your communities speaking out against “business as usual” in Springfield;
  • Remember, every time you speak out for common sense conservative answers, you demonstrate that there are more voices on the North Shore than just those backing the current failed policies — and you empower other common sense conservatives to speak out too!


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