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Commentary: Illinois needs help beyond government

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 20, 2010 - The late John Kenneth Galbraith, an economist and Harvard professor who served in four presidential administrations, wryly observed: "Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable."

For several years now, Illinois' politicians have cowered from the unpalatable and defaulted to the disastrous. We certainly cannot count on them to become more statesmanlike on the campaign trail as November beckons. So, we must hope other influential Illinoisans step forward to make more productive use of the months ahead.

Who? All of the following should be enlisted to address our fiscal calamity together and constructively:

  • captains of industry,
  • officers of public employee unions,
  • policy groups that regard revenue increases as the primary answer and those that see them as no answer,
  • social service agencies that assist the needy and advocates of across-the-board cuts,
  • retired officeholders who both warred and worked with each other,
  • former executive and legislative budget gurus who both clashed and cooperated,
  • folks recommended by the gubernatorial candidates and the Democratic and Republican legislative leaders,
  • well informed number crunchers like Tom Johnson of the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois and former state Comptroller Dawn Netsch.

Mobilized as a task force, they should seek substantial accord or even consensus between now and mid-November on the scope and nuances of the smothering deficit. They should aspire for agreement on remedies, most likely a blend of spending curbs and tax increases. And if they cannot reach that ambitious goal, they should at the very least develop a menu of budget medicines that discloses the impact of each option.

What about our fellow citizens with physical and mental disabilities? Will we provide services that help enhance their quality of life and realize their full potential?

How can we infuse the treasury without damaging an Illinois economy already anemic before this cruel, clinging recession?

How do we adjust our tax structure to reflect a declining manufacturing base and expanding service sector?

What measures could make Illinois a more attractive place to expand and create employment opportunities?

Those are the kinds of questions a solutions-oriented panel could engage with relative freshness outside of a State House befouled by stifling power-preservation ploys and pungent partisanship embodied most recently in House Republican Leader Tom Cross' decision to demote two members of his leadership team who dared side with the Democratic majority on a key budget vote. Soon after the election, the task force could deliver a package providing valuable guidance and, yes, some political cover to Cross and others who are supposed to lead us out of - instead of more deeply into - quicksand.

Who would form, staff and fund this initiative? It should intrigue and entice foundations and an array of groups and individuals bemoaning Illinois' sorry state. David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, senses a role for his organization. Former Gov. Jim Edgar, a distinguished fellow at the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs, has encouraged business leaders and others to coalesce with those coming from different perspectives.

The endeavor could challenge the participants and perhaps convince gubernatorial and legislative candidates to indicate openness to ideas that might come from the broadly based panel instead of locking into untenable positions. It could also falter - an entirely conceivable prospect for those of us downcast about the fate of our state.

Pessimism once was described by Professor Galbraith as "a mark of superior intellect." Yet, we are neither smart nor wise to let it preclude progress.

Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, writes a twice-monthly column.