Reforming Illinois could help reboot America

Reforming Illinois could help reboot America

By Adlai E. Stevenson III

Illinois is the logistical center for North America, the great crossroads of the continent, with a diversified economy, world-class universities, national laboratories, a culture which is open and welcoming and, in Chicago, all the amenities and facilities of a great and beautiful city. But for all Illinois' potentials, the state's unfunded debt and budget deficits are excessive. Economic growth is sluggish, and Illinois is widely caricatured as corrupt. Organizations such as Change Illinois are weighing in to formulate and advocate reforms, but little of a fundamental nature changes. Our central government is dysfunctional, too, and I mean the Congress, reflecting fundamental national weaknesses. As the complexities of governing in a multi-polar, dynamic, interdependent, competitive, nuclear world mount — our competencies decline though some states demonstrate that it is possible to surmount head winds.

If government is failing us, we should move beyond the discussion of public policies to also examine the agencies and politics which produce them. For example, Illinois is reputed to have more agencies of local government than any other state. Do we need county school superintendents? Could school districts be consolidated for greater efficiency and accountability? I detect vitality in rural township elections — but do we need townships in Cook County? The poster boy for institutional surplusage is the mosquito abatement district. It's time to organize a commission to take a hard and comprehensive look at the organization of local government in Illinois. That's tough politically. I know — because I tried it as a candidate for governor and paid the price.

State government could be reorganized. We don't need an elected state treasurer and comptroller — or an elected secretary of state to register corporations and issue license plates. Shortening the ballot would focus voter attention on the surviving contests while creating potentials for greater efficiency and draining some of the money from our politics. In the states, nearly uniquely in the world, judges are elected. They could be appointed by the governor from lists of candidates qualified by bar and better government organizations. The primary election date could be moved back to shorten campaigns, again reducing the money flow and focusing public attention. Legislative districts should be redrawn by a nonpartisan commission to eliminate gerrymandering as Change Illinois is proposing. We might reconsider cumulative voting for Illinois House seats. It produced energy and idealism when the voter cast three votes singly or cumulatively, giving political minorities a greater chance to achieve representation in the House. Its districts elected three, not one representative. The number of districts might be reduced.

The Illinois personnel code might be re-examined. It goes against the grain of conventional wisdom, but when I was state treasurer, I could hire and fire at will. It was a good old-fashioned patronage office — and I was able to quadruple the return on the investment of state funds while cutting the budget every year. The practitioners of politics, men and women with practical experience, should be brought into this process of self-examination. They are more the victims than the perpetrators. The Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy was organized to bring practitioners from the world to address common problems and produce practical answers. The answers aren't all made in the U.S., which boasts the developed world's highest levels of crime and violence — and ignorance. According to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development-sponsored study, not-so-democratic China boasts the world's highest levels of "scholastic achievement." Illinois attracts its students to our universities — but little of its capital to our economy. I am not suggesting a one-party system, but I do suggest that a look at fundamentals include a look at other countries and how they achieve more with less.

In the end, nothing will work with neither the strong and responsible party organizations which once produced America's great leaders nor an informed public. To paraphrase James Madison, if the people of a self-governing country are uninformed, it is prelude to farce or tragedy or both. With mainstream media cutting back newsrooms and focusing on trivia, how can people be informed in the information age? Should the Land of Lincoln support public media, like the Illinois Channel? This is getting down to the most fundamental of fundamentals.

States have limited control over the economy, but by reforming Illinois we could be a greater influence and example in the national government. States could again be laboratories for reform, and the Land of Lincoln could lead the way. It could help Reboot America.

Adlai E. Stevenson III is a former Democratic U.S. senator from Illinois. A former state treasurer and state representative, Stevenson ran for Illinois governor in 1982 and 1986. He is author of "The Black Book," which records American politics and history as his family knew it through five generations of active engagement. Reprinted with permission from, a nonpartisan digital and social media service dedicated to educating Illinoisans on key issues.

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