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Guest View: Illinois university students support bold actions to renew the Prairie State

State Journal Register

Sunday, April 14, 2019  |  Editorial  |  Editorial Board

Last year, the nationally respected magazine, Governing, published a withering assessment of Illinois politics and governance. “Who Ruined Illinois?” the headline screamed. What followed was a gruesome account of several decades of shortsighted thinking, striking incompetence and outright corruption. The author, Daniel Vock, cited the usual suspects for Illinois’ woes: failed governors, feckless General Assemblies, a self-focused political class and, by implication, negligent citizens who have come to accept woeful governance.

 

Several weeks ago, the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute decided to reframe the discussion by asking: How can we rebuild and renew Illinois? And to answer that question, we called on a group whose views are rarely sought and almost never seriously considered: college students. These are the people who will soon decide whether to settle in Illinois and revive our state, or depart for what many see as greener pastures.

 

Thirty-five students from nine Illinois colleges and universities — both public and private — attended our inaugural summit, “Renewing Illinois: Ambitious Dreams and Practical Steps to Revive the Prairie State.” They came from every corner of the state and brought wide-ranging backgrounds and penetrating insights. The students reviewed background materials and listened thoughtfully to keynote speeches and policy briefings. Most importantly, they spent several hours in stimulating small group discussions, pondering solutions on the best way forward for Illinois.

 

While they did not reach complete consensus, several themes became apparent by the end of the two-day summit.

 

First, the students see enormous potential here but are concerned Illinois has fallen into bad habits and has failed to position itself for the long term. They want their state to solve long-festering problems and build a strong foundation for the future. They are weary of temporizing, evasions, partial solutions, political Band-Aids and flimsy half-fixes. They are willing to make sacrifices, including paying more in taxes, if it would help the state operate more effectively, create jobs, clean up the environment and revitalize a higher education system that was once the envy of the rest of the United States.

 

Second, a generation of can-kicking and gimmickry that has led to a large and seemingly permanent structural state budget deficit must end. Illinois policymakers need to decide what services the government should provide and then find the revenues to pay for them. Illinois policymakers should study the example of other states that rebuilt their fiscal positions, such as California, which swung from a nearly $30 billion annual deficit to a nearly $15 billion surplus in less than a decade.

 

The students agreed that additional revenues are needed but they should be earmarked for critical services and sound investments. Far greater transparency is required on budget and tax policy. One suggestion is an annual citizen’s guide to the Illinois state budget that would

be released at the same time as the governor’s annual budget. Environmental policy should be structured to clean up the state and create jobs for the future.

 

Third, Illinois’ higher education system is in a crisis and fundamental reforms are needed to control rising tuition and fees, strengthen academic programs, and encourage high school students to stay in Illinois for college. The recent budget crisis deeply harmed virtually all state schools; costs have risen, faculty and staff have been sharply reduced, and many enrollments have plunged.

 

Fundamental rethinking is imperative. The state’s colleges and universities must once again be viewed as the launching pad to the middle class. Policymakers must boost funding and find new ways to make in-state higher education attractive to Illinois high school students. Robust support for the Monetary Award Program for low-income students is critical, as are smoother pathways between high schools, community colleges, and four-year colleges and universities.

 

Finally, Illinois needs better politics and smarter government. Once the home to iconic political leaders like Abraham Lincoln and John Peter Altgeld, our political culture has become badly tarnished. We need more forward-looking leaders and more responsible citizens who will reward courageous policymakers and rebuke timid ones. We need fairly drawn legislative districts created by nonpartisan bodies. Barriers to voting must be dismantled. Civics, including state history, should be taught far more seriously and engagingly in Illinois schools.

 

The summit’s participants realize that sweeping change will not take place overnight, but fundamental reforms and a spirit of renewal in the Prairie State must begin now. Illinois students are absolutely ready to go to work to revive their state. For them and for the rest of us, delay is not an option.

 

John T. Shaw is the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.