I have never lived in a state where the level of frustration with government has been as high as it is in Illinois in 2016. That sense starts at the top in Springfield and has leeched its way down into many lower forms of county and municipal government.
Presently, we have a state budget impasse that is driving passions among any number of sectors of the public. You would like to think the state of affairs has even moved the participants, from the governor to each member of the General Assembly, to think, “This is a massively stupid corner that we have put ourselves in.”
My regard for state government in Illinois has never been very high, but prior to the reign of the disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, it at least worked. Now, it's a miracle if the legislators are in session, let alone get anything done. In the meantime, as they dally, the situation gets more dire and the solutions look even worse.
I have worked in Iowa, Nebraska and North Dakota during my career. In each of these states, the worst things I can think about those respective legislatures seem like mere qualms in comparison.
When I was in North Dakota, the legislature set biennial budgets and met only once every two years. If they met in the off year, it was a short session and involved some tweaking of the budget or addressing problems that crept up since they last met. Truly, it was a citizen legislature.
The problem with Illinois is the legislators are not citizen legislators, they are professionals; almost like mini-congressmen without the Beltway, but with the sense of entitlement that goes with people who hold power.
Many of the problems local governments are having now have been caused, at least in part, by the General Assembly and the governor's office. Schools don't know what kind of funding they will get. Social service agencies are axing programs and employees because they have run out of money. Some severe hurt is being placed on real people. If we had a citizen legislature, maybe the members would recognize that and be spurred to action.
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Not all the problems that smaller units of government are having can be laid at the feet of the General Assembly. Many of them have been self-inflicted. But the result is the same: An unhappy populace.
Example one is the Decatur City Council. They have added fees and raised taxes; sometimes with scant notice to those who would be affected. Throw in the blowup of the deal to sell the Decatur Public Library building to the Decatur Public Building Commission and the firing of Brad Sweeney as police chief. The outrage over some of these actions has been strong.
Then, when things seemingly couldn't get stranger, the Decatur school board decided they would not extend the contract of Superintendent Lisa Taylor despite the fact she met all of her goals in a performance review. She enjoys support from a good portion of the community. It is frustrating for many that the four members of the school board who voted against extending her contract have yet to explain why they acted the way they did.
All of this has created hard feelings within the community and built public support for two people who have been or will be ushered out the door with little explanation. It's easy to understand why the mistrust of government is growing.
There is a silver lining to these issues. From my point of view, it gives our reporters a lot to write about. If you've been following our coverage, we've had a number of reporters do yeoman work on these stories. They've dug into corners and asked hard questions.
Unfortunately, the most basic question – “why?” – has gone unanswered. Until we get those answers, expect the dissatisfaction and mistrust to remain.