Understanding Illinois: Can Illinois be salvaged?

Nowlan•May 11, 2016•

By Jim Nowlan
NP Guest Columnist

A reader asked: “Can Illinois be salvaged?”

I take it he wonders if our state can stem its population out-flow, return to an economic growth rate comparable to that of the nation, and get a handle on our huge state debt and pension albatross.

To this, I think the answer is Yes, but it will take a number of years and concerted effort by leaders of both parties.

If he meant, can Illinois return to the old days of good-paying factory jobs for all who want them, the answer is clearly No. We live in a new world. Such jobs are evaporating, largely because of technology.

I will have to reprise elements from various earlier columns to respond to the reader.

Illinois is at its lowest point in my 74 years. As I pointed out recently, Illinois suffers from decades long net out-migration of its population and persistent slower economic growth than for the nation and, even more worrisome, among our neighboring states as well.

Some of this was maybe to have been expected. The blistering Sunbelt has air conditioning it lacked when I was a tyke, and Illinois always had a larger manufacturing base than most states, so the other states suffered less loss over the years.
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Understanding Illinois: Reflections From Crumbling Cuba

Nowlan•May 4, 2016•

By Jim Nowlan
NP Guest Columnist

I just returned from two weeks in Cuba and offer a few reflections from the land of Fidelismo.

Individual travel from the U.S. to Cuba is still technically prohibited, though American educational and professional groups may visit the island nation. Soon, I predict, American travel restrictions will be lifted, which will overwhelm the already strained hospitality resources of Cuba.

If you can withstand stressful long lines at entry and departure, it’s well worth the effort.

(The Cubans we met are pleasant, helpful and handsome, often a caramel blend of Spanish and former slave black. The indigenous population was killed off by the conquistadores upon their arrival.)

My lady friend is a medical scientist at the Mayo Clinics. She was asked to give a paper in Cuba at an international conference. My cover for tagging along was to serve as her “research assistant.”

After the conference, we traveled on our own all over big swaths of this verdant, tropical island nation of 11 million, which has roughly the land area of our state (with our 13 million people). Read More

Understanding Illinois: Are Illinoisans Leaving by the Droves?

Nowlan•April 27, 2016•

By Jim Nowlan
NP Guest Columnist

More than a couple of my acquaintances have told me in recent months they plan to leave our state as soon as they can. And now a Chicago Tribune story reports that 3,000 “millionaires” (net worth not including primary residence) left that city last year on a net basis, more than any city in the nation.

What’s going on? As your faithful inquiring columnist, I looked into matters.

In the latter half of the 19th Century, Chicago and Illinois were for a while the fastest growing jurisdictions in the world.

Great swaths of fecund farmland beckoned settlers, and Chicago entrepreneurs such as Swift and Armour employed thousands in butchering livestock and marketing our products to the world. [For a marvelous history of the countryside-city synergy, see William Cronon’s masterful work about “Nature’s Metropolis.”]

Yet since the 1920s, Illinois has suffered domestic net out-migration almost every year of folks (more U.S. residents moving out than in, net), with the rate ratcheting up in the 1970-80s to almost one percent net outflow per year and once again to that rate since 2010.

This is according to talented researchers Mike Klemens and Natalie Davila, who recently sliced and diced our national demographic trends, especially as they apply to the Prairie State.

Using IRS data, Klemens and Davila find that in 2012-13 there was a net loss of 10,500 IRS tax exemptions to Texas followed by 7,700 to Florida and 8,500 combined to California and Arizona. Read More

Understanding Illinois: In Illinois, It’s All About “King of the Hill”

Nowlan•April 20, 2016•

By Jim Nowlan
NP Guest Columnist

When I was a kid, we played a game called “king of the hill.” One boy at the top of a heap of some sort would fend off others who tried to pull him down and replace him.

That’s pretty much the game of life as well. Our DNA, forged millennia ago, drives us still today to play king of the hill.

Media mogul Ted Turner said that money is how we keep score of who is winning in this game of life. And so it is in Illinois, its government and politics, always individualistic in the extreme.

This self-interest has led to our current budget impasse.

On the one side, we have Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, a small government guy (an insider tells me the governor has staff around him who “hate government”). Rauner and his uber-wealthy friends want to whack government because they see it as needlessly draining wealth from the individual.

In sharp contrast, many Democrats such as House speaker Mike Madigan are career politicians quite comfortable with government. Indeed, many have increased their wealth through government.

For example, for almost half a century Madigan has been piling up money at his property tax appeal law firm, as deep-pocketed clients have come to him almost solely because of the speaker’s role as a political power broker. Read More

Growing Up In Sullivan: Vacation Time Fast Approaching-There’s No Place Like Home

Ginther•April 20, 2016•

By Jerry Ginther
NP Columnist

Well, post retirement age has arrived and the spontaneous trips and desired vacations that we looked forward to taking have not often materialized.

More free time and less debt being the supposed catalysts for travel and adventure have not produced the expected result.

As a matter of fact, those two items seem to be the least responsible for not hitting the road more often. Now, we seem to have a list of “what ifs” that get more than its share of considerations.

Planning these excursions was thought to be part of the fun, and indeed should be, but deciding where to go is the only easy part of this fun. Planning the routing, places to stay en route, figuring the costs of gasoline and all of the other necessities take time.

Staying on a schedule is also important and includes allowing extra time for unexpected occurrences. When one starts figuring how much time to allot, sometimes halting considerations come to mind that might preclude the trip altogether. Here is one of those “what ifs” I alluded to earlier. What if we can’t find anyone to take care of our chickens for an extended period of time? Easy answer: Sell the chickens or stay home. Okay, the chickens are getting a new home. Move on.

Now, I consider myself a thoughtful planner and usually have little trouble getting my ducks in a row. However, my wife’s list of “what ifs” encompasses so many more “unlikely to occur incidents” that I could never manage that row of ducks. Still, I do what I can to assure her that I’ve considered all of the remote possibilities even if I’m barely in the ballpark. So, I pretend to have everything under control, and she pretends to buy it. Yep, we pretty well know each other’s game. Read More

Understanding Illinois: Can We reduce Prison Population 25 Percent? Should We?

Nowlan•April 6, 2016•

By Jim Nowlan
NP Guest Columnist

Gov. Bruce Rauner has a goal of reducing Illinois prison numbers by 25 percent in the coming few years. A blue ribbon group he set up is at work to make this a reality. Should we do so?

When I was a back-bench state legislator a half century ago, there were 7,000 inmates in our prisons. Recently the number reached almost 50,000, though that has come back to 46,000; crime is down and the justice system is going lighter on drug crimes, I am told.

During the 1980s, we got tough on crime with Class X felony and truth-in-sentencing laws. These policies took sentencing discretion away from judges and put felons in prison for longer stretches than before.

Illegal drug activity was also up, a profitable alternative for young men from poor neighborhoods who had neither positive role models nor jobs.

Criminologist David Olson at Loyola University in Chicago is a member of Rauner’s blue ribbon group.

Olson points out that part of the increased prison population results from convictions for non-violent drug offenses. In addition, 40 percent of all prison inmates are inside the walls for sometimes minor violations of their parole.

Rehabilitation, mental health and education programs in prisons are also woefully inadequate to meet inmate needs, which results in more inmates ending up back in prison than might be the case otherwise.

As a result, we built one new prison a year for a couple of decades and now have 30, and yet the prisons are overcrowded, with a rated capacity of 34,000 to house the 46,000 inmates. Read More

Understanding Illinois: Rauner May Notch a Win in Labor Conflict

Nowlan•March 23, 2016•

By Jim Nowlan
NP Guest Columnist

While Gov. Bruce Rauner and Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan continue to joust selfishly, and to the great harm of our state, over an unresolved state budget from 2015, the governor appears to be on track to notch a win over the state’s major public employee union.

Both Rauner and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 31 (AFSCME), which represents 37,000 state workers, recently filed complaints with the Illinois Labor Relations Board (ILRB) in which they charge the other party with failure to bargain in good faith.

If ILRB, with a majority of members appointed by Rauner, finds the 14-month negotiations over a new contract to be at an impasse (a legal term of art), as the governor contends, then he can impose his last, final, best offer.

AFSCME could then strike, but it won’t. I don’t believe the public would stand for it. In addition, many union members would stay on the job, and Rauner could begin hiring permanent replacements for striking state workers.

First, some background.

Former Republican governor Jim Thompson signed the state’s collective bargaining law in 1984, which provides a right-to-strike with the exception of employees essential to public safety and health (prison guards, for example).

During the 2000s, former Democratic governors Rod Blagojevich and then Pat Quinn inked sweetheart contracts with AFSCME. Read More

Oh Brother: Cashing in on Easter Egg Hunt

MikeBrothers•March 23, 2016•

By Mike Brothers
NP Managing Editor

Easter can be a confusing time for kids, especially for a very young Oh Brother with a single song repertoire - Davy Crocket.

It wasn’t long after my cousin Judy and I had to leave church on Easter because of my singing the wrong hymn that I began to learn the other side of Easter.

You know, the one where these days you get the same volume of candy as Halloween, only instead of everything being black and orange, it’s pink and lilac.

During the 1950s we hadn’t caught on to the capitalistic side of Easter yet.

Our town had a giant Easter Egg Hunt at Taylor Field, home of state champion Harrisburg Bulldogs.

Held on Easter weekend with the Lions and Kiwanis Clubs going together for the project, it was a tradition that has since passed.

One reason is because this meant spending nights boiling eggs in giant vats, then coloring them every color of the rainbow.

Not only did they spend hundreds of hours boiling and coloring eggs, they taped coins to several of the colored eggs.

There were all kinds of eggs with dimes and nickels and quarters taped to them. Read More

Growing Up In Sullivan: Historical Education Through Being There

Ginther•March 16, 2016•

By Jerry L. Ginther
NP Columnist

Visiting a famous battlefield such as Gettysburg and standing on the very ground where so many brave men had fought and died takes one back in time. It becomes more than just a place which one has read about in American History. Several years ago, when our children were in school, we made the journey to Pennsylvania and legendary Gettysburg.

We moved about the battlefield to the different locations of interest and discussed what had occurred at each. From each site we had the view of the terrain as the soldiers would have had during the bloody conflict.

We read aloud the words of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and they yielded stronger meaning than when we had read them from our history book. Being there made longer lasting impressions than photographs or written accounts could ever furnish. It was a day of learning for our family and an unforgettable family experience.

Much to their teacher’s surprise, my kids had much to share and became the authorities in their classrooms on that battle of the Civil War because they had actually been to the battlefield.

Springfield, Ill. is another town rich in American History pertaining to Abraham Lincoln. It exhibits the home and the tomb of our illustrious 16th president. The tomb itself is located in Oak Ridge Cemetery and is visited by thousands of history buffs from around the globe each year.  Read More

Understanding Illinois: Is Government Replacing Dad?

Nowlan•March 16, 2016•

By Jim Nowlan
NP Guest Columnist

Ever since I moved back to my rural hometown in central Illinois a few years ago, I have fretted about rural white poverty.

I think I see it at the local convenience store where disturbing numbers of scruffy, bearded young men pick up their beer and roar away in beat-up pickups. But that could just be generational distaste for new styles.

I do know that 44 percent of the children born this past year in Stark County, where I live, were born to unmarried women, which I find is about the state average.

The topic came to mind recently when I had lunch with old friend and circuit judge Mike McCuskey, of Lacon in nearby Marshall County. Mike rotates each week among three rural county courthouses, including Stark. Mike has also moved back to his rural roots after 16 years away as a federal judge.

“Jim, we have an epidemic of single mothers who never marry, with children often by multiple fathers,” exclaimed the judge over a Reuben and chips.

“Divorce used to be a big deal in our days growing up. Today there is no stigma. Read More