It’s time to replant trees in Illinois – Shaw Local
On a spectacular Saturday in early May, my wife and I traveled across much of Illinois to attend a dinner to discuss the future of the state. It was moderated by two former statesmen from the Prairie State: Ray LaHood, former congressman and U.S. secretary of transportation, and Jim Nowlan, former state representative, chief of staff and author of several important books. on Illinois.
It was a long drive from Carbondale to Princeton, but Illinois was at its best, with abundant sunshine, growing crops, bustling farms, and bustling communities hosting spring festivals galore.
The discussion that evening in Princeton included former members of the Illinois General Assembly, a retired judge, an aspiring judge, teachers, professors and political analysts. We looked at how Illinois has changed over the past few decades, political polarization, and upcoming elections in the fall. There has been heated discussion about whether recent credit hikes by bond rating agencies are the result of cautious fiscal policies in Illinois or an injection of COVID-related federal funds. We wondered why Illinois became a one-party state and discussed the benefits of competitive elections in which candidates meet citizens in person and explain their policies.
It was invigorating to discuss the future of our state with people with different perspectives but who share a common aspiration to improve Illinois.
A few months earlier, I attended an extensive discussion about Illinois with two dozen people on Zoom, hosted by two impressive and forward-thinking organizations, Illinois Humanities and Elevate Illinois. The Visioning Illinois Conversation looked at the state’s evolution, regional differences, and areas where we can find common ground. We heard the views of a student, a journalist, a financial expert and an environmental activist. We then broke into small groups to go deeper into the presentations we had just heard.
As a participant in both of these discussions, I came away with a clear sense that committed people are trying to renew and revitalize Illinois.
There is broad consensus on Illinois’ strengths: the state has a world-class city, a diverse economy, an extensive transportation system, an educated workforce, a productive agricultural sector, committed philanthropists , strong universities and a vibrant cultural life.
The state’s challenges are obvious: regional antagonisms, a history of political corruption that shows no signs of ending, sluggish population growth and serious long-term fiscal imbalances.
There is also broad consensus about what is needed to rebuild Illinois: ambitious plans, capable and visionary leaders, strong institutions, and an engaged public.
Illinois doesn’t need big statements or slick ad campaigns. It needs to get to work and tackle long-standing problems with real solutions, not just band-aids and partial fixes. We need specific plans for our budget, our schools, public health, public safety, and struggling urban and rural communities. Strong plans must be coupled with effective implementation. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said implementation is “where too often good intentions go to die”.
Illinois is at a crossroads. There is a temptation to lament lost time and wasted opportunities. There are many reasons to be disappointed and we should reflect on previous mistakes in order to avoid them in the future. However, there is little to be gained by lamenting over history. We have to move forward.
I recently came across a Chinese proverb that contains tremendous wisdom for individuals and institutions – and our state.
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago,” he says. “The second best time is now.”
Now is the time to start planting trees in Illinois.
• John T. Shaw is director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois Carbondale. This editorial was distributed by Capitol News Illinois on behalf of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.