2011 started with a sense of hope that maybe, just maybe, Illinois lawmakers at long last were preparing to change old habits and take the state in a new direction. Illinois continues to drop in status, thanks to a poor business climate, unfunded pensions, an operating deficit, and past dues owed to business and nonprofits. With all of that, and coming on the heels of an income tax increase, the business community began to hope that the state’s leaders would get serious about addressing some of the factors that created these problems.
In Illinois, change has to be measured in small increments. In assessing the just-concluded legislative session, and what it means for the state in the long term, there was clearly a change in tone among lawmakers. Increasingly, from the governor and legislative leaders, we heard about the need for change on a host of issues important to the business community.
The Peoria Area Chamber also decided that it needed to change its role in the state legislative process and become more hands-on. To do that, the Chamber engaged Doug Crew, former manager of government affairs for Caterpillar Inc., to work with members and represent the Chamber’s interests in Springfield.
At the top of the list of interests was educational reform. The Chamber membership wanted to see changes in the rules of tenure, teacher dismissals and transparency in bargaining, among others. After months of negotiations, a major reform proposal moved through the Senate with the support of education reform groups, school management and teacher unions. Even after the Chicago Teachers Union changed its position and opposed the measure, the House still approved it. A major change in education reform was now on its way to the governor’s desk.
While this was going on, the House returned to a budget process that had been abandoned in recent years. Rather than provide a rolled-up budget amount to the governor, leaving it to him to balance it, representatives charted a budget that was based on anticipated state revenue and was more than a couple of billion dollars less than what the governor proposed. At first, the Senate followed partisan lines creating its own budget, but it eventually followed the House lead. While this did not get the State’s fiscal house in order, it was a return to the involvement of the General Assembly in the budgeting process.
Perhaps the area of greatest importance to the business community during this legislative session was workers’ compensation reform. We were encouraged early on that substantive change could take place, and that leaders were serious about improving the state’s business climate.
For weeks, business groups met with representatives from the governor’s office and legislative leaders to craft an agreement that would provide some relief from the high cost and potential for abuse that exists with the current system. Unfortunately, the agreement that emerged didn’t go far enough to address the business community’s top concern of “causation.” Some business groups supported the reform package as a good step, while others were less than enthusiastic or offered no endorsement, claiming it needed more changes to be considered major reform. The Peoria Chamber opposed the final bill.
Finally, we had the issue of redrawing the map of legislative districts. Proponents of openness and transparency had high hopes for change to a process that has been driven by partisan preservation. Legislative leaders scheduled committee hearings to gather public input signaling at least a nod to transparency, but ultimately, it was business as usual, and Illinois passed on an opportunity to change the perception of the state as one that adheres strictly to hard-edged partisanship.
The Peoria Area Chamber worked on several other issues including public pension reform, historic tax credits, charter school reform, and reducing diversions from the road fund.
Change doesn’t come easy. For lawmakers, it often comes with great political risk. But if Illinois is to get back on track and become a place where investors want to put their money, create business growth and hire new employees, more needs to change. For the economic well-being of our state, it can’t come soon enough. iBi