Fixing Illinois: Politics and Policy in the Prairie State

Fixing Illinois: Politics and Policy in the Prairie State

by James D. Nowlan, J. Thomas Johnson

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Persistent problems have left Illinois the butt of jokes and threatened it with fiscal catastrophe. In Fixing Illinois, James D. Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson use their four decades of experience as public servants, Springfield veterans, and government observers to present a comprehensive program of almost one hundred specific policy ideas aimed at rescuing the state from its long list of problems.
Nowlan and Johnson start with the history of how one of the most prosperous states of the 1950s became a present-day mess riven by debt and discord and increasingly abandoned by both businesses and citizens. Among their more than ninety proposals to restore Illinois to greatness:
• An overhaul of state pension systems that includes more reasonable benefits and lengthening of the retirement age, among other changes;
• Reducing one of the nation's highest corporate tax rates to attract business;
• Medicare reform through an insurance voucher program;
• Demanding that schools raise expectations for success, particularly in rural and impoverished urban areas;
• A new approach to higher education that includes a market-driven system that puts funds in the hands of students rather than institutions;
• Broadening of the tax base to include services and reduction in rates;
• The creation of a long-term plan to maintain the state's five-star transportation infrastructure;
• Raising funds with capital construction bonds to update and integrate the antiquated information systems used by state agencies;
• Uprooting the state's entrenched culture of corruption via public financing of elections, redistricting reform, and revolving door prohibitions for lawmakers.
Pointed, honest, and pragmatic, Fixing Illinois is a plan for effective and honest government that seeks an even nobler end: restoring our faith in Illinois's institutions and reviving a sense of citizenship and state pride.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252079962
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 05/30/2014
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

James Nowlan served two terms in the Illinois House of Representatives and worked under three governors. He is the coauthor of Illinois Politics: A Citizen's Guide. J. Thomas Johnson was director of the Illinois Department of Revenue and is President Emeritus of the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois.

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Politics and Policy in the Prairie State



Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-07996-2


The Changing Faces of Illinois

The late North Carolina governor Terry Sanford once lamented that there is no one in the governor's office whose only job is to gaze out the window and brood about the problems of the future. So it is in Illinois. Unfortunately, Illinois doesn't know where it is going. There is no planning agency within state government to chart a course for the coming five to ten years. There are no privately supported grand plans for the state such as Daniel Burnham's 1909 plan for Chicago, with its wide boulevards, great parks, and a lakefront protected for the citizenry. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) has produced a comprehensive plan for the region called Go to 2040. This plan encompasses much of the population of Illinois yet leaves out most of the geography of the state and focuses largely on local government issues.

Instead of long-term planning, Illinois simply carries on year by year. State government struggles to pay its long-overdue bills from previous years and craft a budget that will not worsen the state's deficit situation. State lawmakers process thousands of legislative proposals each year, which in totality may represent the closest thing to a plan for Illinois.

This book looks back on where Illinois has been in recent decades, assesses where things stand as of this writing, and tries to project where the state is heading, based on trends of the past few decades. The book also lays out numbered suggestions and recommendations for the future, proposals that might change the state's trajectory for the better.

In this chapter we provide a backdrop for the rest of the book by examining demographic, economic, and social change in Illinois. We also gauge the public's mood and the state's strengths. In subsequent chapters we evaluate the major components of our state and its local governments, with an eye to public policy suggestions for the future that might appeal to readers, or might not, and of the potential improvements the options might bring the state.

A Brief Historical Overview

The "Tall State," as it was called in a early tourism campaign, stretches almost four hundred miles from the Wisconsin line to its southern tip at Cairo (pronounced "kay'-ro"), nestled between Kentucky and Missouri. The northernmost latitude is on line with Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and at Cairo, close to that of Portsmouth, Virginia.

The state's diversity is due in great measure to U.S. territorial delegate Nathaniel Pope, who in 1818 succeeded in passing an amendment to the Illinois Enabling Act that moved the new state's northern boundary forty-one miles to the north of the original plan. This addition of eight thousand square miles—mostly wilderness at the time—today encompasses metropolitan Chicago and about two-thirds of the state's population; without it, Illinois would have voted Democratic in 1860 and Abraham Lincoln could not have been elected president.

Because it was settled originally by southerners, there was pro-slavery sentiment among many in 1818. Three of the first four governors possessed registered servants, "a theoretical distinction with slavery that made little difference to the Negroes involved." A white man could import blacks under fifteen years of age and register them to serve until they were in their thirties. A black person had the right to reject a registered servant contract, in which case the owner could return him to a southern state within sixty days.

Settlement of the state was facilitated by natural factors, ingenuity, and human achievements. The Ohio River offered a convenient super-waterway, while the state's generally level topography made the tall-grass prairie relatively easy to traverse on foot. Opening of the Erie Canal in New York in 1825 facilitated the flow of Yankees and European immigrants via the Great Lakes. The early development of Illinois as a railroad center helped disperse throughout the state those newly arrived; later, the main line of the Illinois Central Railroad, running from New Orleans, would bring tens of thousands of blacks to jobs in Chicago.

The platting, or dividing, of Illinois into townships of thirty-six uniform one-mile squares, as decreed by the U.S. Congress in the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, was designed to transfer public lands efficiently into private hands. This it did. Each mile square represented a "section" of land of 640 acres. Township roads were laid out along the sections. The township plats made it simple to survey and sell virgin land with a minimum of confusion and dispute. Even today, for the airplane traveler crossing Illinois, a geometric checkerboard pattern unfolds below.

There was a hunger to develop this rich flatland, but transportation infrastructure was needed first in order to get the settlers in and the bounty of the fields to market. When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas served as state lawmakers in the 1830s, the legislature embarked on an ambitious scheme of "internal improvements," but the dreamed-of network of wood-plank roads, canals, and railroads collapsed under the weight of poor planning, a weak national economy, and a lack of both capital and engineering capacity. Lincoln and Douglas later became U.S. congressmen and revived the idea, this time convincing the federal government to assist with huge land grants for private investors. In 1851 the federal government offered 3.75 million acres of railroad right-of-way and adjoining land to investors in the Illinois Central Railroad (IC). Within five years, 705 miles of track had been laid from Cairo to Galena, with a spur to Chicago. The IC became the longest railway in the world and the nation's largest private venture to date.

Railroads served as the interstate highways of the nineteenth century. If a town was on a rail line, it generally prospered; if not, the town was often abandoned. Railroad trackage in Illinois increased from 111 miles in 1850 to 2,800 in 1860 and 7,000 by 1875. In part because of its railroad grid, Illinois was the fastest-growing territory in the world by the middle of the nineteenth century. The thirty-six million acres of land in Illinois were enough for almost a quarter-million quarter-section (160-acre) farms. One-fourth of those farms had been taken by 1850, and nearly all by 1875. Three in four farms were within five miles of a railroad, and only 5 percent were more than ten miles distant.

Early Triumph for the "Modernizers"

In the free-for-all environment of the state's early days, no one culture held sway. This northern state had been settled first by southerners, primarily poor, land-hungry northern British and Scots-Irish pioneers from the uplands of Virginia and the Carolinas, up through Tennessee and Kentucky. James Simeone describes the first settlers as the "white folks" who saw the West (Illinois Territory) as a place of opportunity and feared the re-establishment of an economic aristocracy by English and old Virginia families.

The second surge came in the 1830s via the new Erie Canal, primarily from New England and the Middle Atlantic states. These Yankees, most of whom settled in the central and northern parts of Illinois, generally brought more assets with them and put down roots into richer farmland than did those farther south.

These demographics set the stage for a struggle between the "white folks" in southern Illinois and the "modernizers," primarily Yankees, in the north. The genius of the modernizers, according to Richard Jensen, lay in a combination of values: faith in reason, a drive for middle-class status, equal rights, and a sense of mission to transform the world in their image. Education was their remedy, efficiency their ideal.

Everyone in Illinois recognized the difference between modernizers and white folks, or "traditionalists," as Richard Jensen identified them, although nobody used those words. Each group thought the other peculiar. Fast-talking Yankee peddlers were distrusted—one county even set a prohibitive fifty-dollars-per-quarter license for clock peddlers. A Yankee woman was amused by the drinking, horse trading, and quaint, slow drawl of the southerners. She talked with one who allowed that "it's a right smart thing to be able to read when you want to" but who didn't figure that books and the sciences would "do a man as much good as handy use of the rifle."

Strong commitment to education was the hallmark of the modernizers. By 1883 the northern part of the state provided its children with one-third more days of schooling than did the schools in "Egypt," as deep southern Illinois, with its towns of Cairo, Karnak, and Thebes, was called. Jensen quotes a nineteenth-century governor on the values in northern Illinois: "Is a school house, a bridge, or a church to be built, a road to be made, a school or minister to be maintained, or taxes to be paid? The northern man is never to be found wanting."

By 1860 the Yankee modernizers dominated northern Illinois politics, while traditionalists held sway in the south. Central Illinois became the uncertain political battleground. With Lincoln's election and the ensuing Civil War, the modernists triumphed and, through the Republican Party, controlled Illinois politics almost continuously for the following seventy years. (In order to emphasize that generalizations about traditionalists and modernizers are just that, we note that Lincoln the modernizer came from traditionalist Kentucky roots while Douglas, who represented the traditionalist viewpoint in the 1860 presidential election, came from upstate New York.)

Chicago and the Great Midwest

Another cultural characteristic that emerged in the nineteenth century, with roots in commerce, would mark Illinois forever. In a compelling synthesis of the organic relationship between a great city and the vast prairie that envelops it, William Cronon explains that neither Chicago nor the rich countryside of the Midwest would have developed their great wealth if not for the symbiosis between the two: the urban center contributing creativity, energy, and capital while the farmers and small towns provided ambition, intelligence, and the harvest from incredibly fecund soils. Plentiful water and easy waterborne transportation provided further economic stimulus. The Wabash, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers formed Illinois's natural boundaries and the Illinois River traversed the middle, positioning the state to be at the heart of the young nation's economic expansion.

At the southern tip of Lake Michigan, Chicago sat astride the boundary between East and West. Chicago's meatpackers, grain merchants, and manufacturers showed extraordinary drive and creativity, not to mention a knack for attracting capital. The railroads were eager to carry their goods, and these capitalists put the Midwest's natural resources to use to create an unprecedented hive of economic development by the end of the 1800s.

Almost all the Chicago capitalists were Yankees such as meatpackers Philip Swift and Gustavus Armour. These two men and their collaborators systematized the market in animal flesh. Building on the adage that "the hog is regarded as the most compact form in which the Indian corn crop ... can be transported to market," they created hog slaughtering lines that were the forerunners of the assembly line. Cattle were standardized as Grade No. 1, No. 2, or No. 3. Rail cars were refrigerated so that dressed beef from Chicago could be marketed in the East.

According to Cronon, the overarching genius of Swift and Armour lay in the immense impersonal, hierarchical organizations they created, operated by an army of managers and workers who would outlive and carry on after the founders. By 1880 Chicago had more than seventy-five thousand industrial workers, the largest such labor force west of the Appalachians. To quote muckraker Frank Norris: "The Great Grey City, brooking no rival, imposed its dominion upon a reach of country larger than many a kingdom of the Old World"

By 1890 Chicago, with more than a million residents, was the nation's second-largest city. It bragged on itself in 1893 by presenting the World's Columbian Exposition to twenty-seven million visitors. From a one-square-mile tract of marshes and scrub pines on the south side of Chicago arose a fairy city that hosted the exhibits of forty-six nations, a single exposition building said to seat three hundred thousand persons, and an amusement park ride by George Ferris of Downstate Galesburg that could carry forty persons in each of thirty-six cars on a 250-foot-high revolving wheel. Visitors were equally impressed with the real-world development a few miles up the lakefront in the city center. At twenty-one stories, the Masonic Temple was the world's tallest building, a so-called skyscraper.

There was a tension between the fairy city of the exposition and the real city that surrounded it, a tension that persists to this day. Rural visitors from Downstate were agog at the artificial White City but "afeared" of the perceived dangers and tumult of Chicago. Many Chicagoans, in fact, had already become eager for the tranquility of the country. In 1868 the urban planner Frederick Law Olmsted designed Riverside, west of Chicago, as a new community where families could enjoy the country while the breadwinner could take the train to his job downtown. Skyscraper and suburb created each other, said Cronon, and the railroad made both possible.

By 1930 Chicago had a population of 3.4 million inhabitants—almost half the state's total—and was the fourth-largest city in the world, second only to New York in the United States. By 1945 Chicago peaked at 3.6 million, as the suburban era began in earnest. Auto ownership doubled between 1945 and the early 1950s, and expressways were being built, foreshadowing suburban growth. According to the historian Jensen, "Comfort, security, and the promise of continued progress ... made the suburban era a time of placid complacency."

With Chicago leading the way and many Downstate communities still thriving under mixed industrial and agricultural economies, Illinois was a strong state through most of the twentieth century. But driven as it was by commercial success and with a line of local and statewide leaders who worked closely with and profited from business interests, Chicago became a place where the wealth of opportunity was matched only by the ruthlessness of those pursuing it.

The writer Nelson Algren, in his prose poem "Chicago: City on the Make," identified two key characteristics of the culture that came to dominate Illinois. First, leadership and success were highly prized, and second, if the success involved a bit of shady dealing, so be it. "If he can get away with it I give the man credit," Algren said of a safe-blower. The same culture has always looked askance at weakness, having no sympathy for a woman reduced to prostitution or a jobless man numbing himself with beer. Warned Algren: "Wise up, Jim: it's a joint where the bulls and the foxes live well and the lambs wind up head-down from the hook"

The Chicago business leader Paul O'Connor put it in more positive vein:

We [Chicago] invented the skyscraper, split the atom, made our river flow backwards, created a lakefront from scratch, figured out the transistor, drew all the railroads to us, pioneered and continuously dominated commercial air travel, broadcast the world's first all-color TV station, built the number-one manufacturing city of America, invented risk management markets, won more Nobel Prizes than any city on earth, communicate[d] more data on a daily basis than any other city on earth, threw away more basic industries than most other cities ever had, you know, like, hog butcher, stacker of wheat, steel capital of America. Should we tell anyone?

Regionalism and a Lack of Sense of Statehood

Illinois has been characterized throughout by perceptions among its citizens that the state is divided into geopolitical regions, each of which looks after its own interests through state government. Before the Civil War, Democrats in the south of the state and Republicans in the north clashed over the extension of slavery. After the war, with the rapid growth of Chicago and its large foreign-born population, the city and the rest of Illinois saw their interests divide along urban-rural as well as Democratic (Chicago) and Republican (Downstate) lines.


Excerpted from FIXING ILLINOIS by JAMES D. NOWLAN, J. THOMAS JOHNSON. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Preface xi

Introduction. The Future of Illinois 1

Chapter 1 The Changing Faces of Illinois 7

Chapter 2 Fixing Past Budgeting Sins 21

Chapter 3 Upgrading Education 39

Chapter 4 Improving Human Services and Health Care 61

Chapter 5 Economic Development for Stability 78

Chapter 6 Transportation: Maintaining Our Greatest Strength 99

Chapter 7 Reengineering Our Governments 117

Chapter 8 Corruption in Illinois: An Enduring Tradition 135

Notes 149

Bibliographical Notes 171

Index 175

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