Tags: Nowlan | Johnson | Chicago | Illinois

2 Authors Think They Can Fix Chicago Politics

By    |   Friday, 20 Jun 2014 07:54 AM

As part of the 2014 Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest, James Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson presented their book, Fixing Illinois: Politics and Policy in the Prairie State, to a nearly empty auditorium, perhaps because Chicagoans have long since figured out that the state cannot be fixed.

However, Chicago has such a rich political history that a writer was interested in hearing what they have to say. The program was moderated by Rick Pearson, political writer for the Chicago Tribune. Nowlan is a former state legislator and aide to three governors, while Johnson served as director of the Illinois Department of Revenue.

Two enterprising journalists, Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer set the standard in 1950 with Chicago Confidential, a book that explained how the two parties protected vice in the city and state, and the basic pattern seems to have endured and flourished in the meantime. Before them there was the legendary muckraker Lincoln Steffens' Chicago: Half Free and Fighting On, which was part of a collection of articles published by McClure's Magazine.

Evidently the authors recognized this rich history, because the last chapter is titled "Corruption: An Enduring Tradition." Johnson said that the chapter was placed last because a Gallup poll shows Illinois ranks next to last among states in citizens' trust in government. Nowlan added that corruption is cited by businesses as a factor in deciding not to do business in the state.

Pearson suggested, as this writer has, that there is an "acceptance of some level of corruption" as inevitable in Illinois, while Nowlan described a "culture of corruption" that leads citizens to try to take advantage of the system because "that's what everybody else does."

Pearson observed that this is an appropriate topic for an election year, and he quipped that perhaps the book might have been called "Hard Choice," but that title is taken by another author.

The authors have roughly a hundred recommendations for reform. Pearson asked them how one would change the prevailing tradition and mentality. Johnson called for "bold reforms," because the existing reforms just "nibble around the edges." He said it would have to be so bold that other states would notice and say, "Wow! Did you see what they're doing in Illinois?" He pointed to the decline in smoking among young people and the changed perception of drinking and driving.

Johnson's 99th reform suggestion is to eliminate public pensions for all elected officials, but not for civil servants. However, he would give the public officials a 5 percent bonus that they can contribute to their IRAs.

He argues that public pensions were designed to support a cadre of long-term professional employees, not for elected officials. He contended that a relative few public officials who have ethical lapses affect the perception of the entire state government.

Nowlan recommended that ethics units be incorporated in required social studies courses, noting that Indiana has three years of social studies, but Illinois has only two.

The panel discussed regional differences, such as a pro-gun culture in downstate Illinois reminiscent of Texas, and a lack of appreciation of the economic interdependence of the six-county Chicagoland area with downstate Illinois.

Nolan faulted the state for depending so much on Chicago for economic development that the state has no unit to perform that function or even statewide civic groups.

Pearson attributed many of the problems in Illinois to economic issues, such as a $100 billion pension liability, with the proposed solution being challenged in the courts. He asked how the state could fix the mess created by a long-term structural deficit. Johnson advocated a broader tax base and a lower rate in order to enable revenues to grow with the economy. Presently the state does not tax retirement income, the fastest-growing part of the economy.

Illinois has six times as many school districts as states like Florida and Virginia do. The authors disagreed with each other over whether to phase out state subsidies to higher education.

(Archived video can be found here.)

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Robert-Feinberg
As part of the 2014 Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest, James Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson presented their book, Fixing Illinois: Politics and Policy in the Prairie State, to a nearly empty auditorium, perhaps because Chicagoans have long since figured out that the state cannot be fixed.
Nowlan, Johnson, Chicago, Illinois
667
2014-54-20
Friday, 20 Jun 2014 07:54 AM
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