The state of the State
Nostalgic and politically strategic: Thompson sums up his years as governor
By MICHAEL D. KLEMENS
Gov. James R. Thompson ambled on a nostalgic trip through his years in state government during his 14th State of the State Message on January 10. Thompson called it a "bittersweet occasion'' bitter because it was his last, but sweet because he said that Illinois is ready for the next decade. After 74 minutes the governor concluded by telling lawmakers, "It's been splendid."
There was plenty of nostalgia, but there was more. Thompson put lawmakers on notice that six months after hiking state taxes $1.1 billion, there is no money for new programs without new revenue. He outlined needs in health care, education and solid waste disposal. And Illinois' most-elected governor moved to defuse Democratic campaign issues.
Thompson began by comparing today's Illinois state government to what he found upon assuming office: "In 1977 a brand new governor told you that '. . . a government that limits itself to compassion for the needy and efficiency for the taxpayer shortchanges both. In 1977, the government's job must be to provide more efficiency for the needy and more compassion for the taxpayer.' "
His emphasis on prevention has been both compassionate and efficient, Thompson said, and ticked off examples that included:
In-home care programs for the elderly and disabled that help keep 30,000 Illinoisans out of hospitals and nursing homes.
The Department on Aging's budget that has grown from $20 million (90 percent federal money) to $155 million (33 percent federal money) to support community agencies that provide everything from hot meals to legal assistance.
Welfare spending that has moved from efforts to prevent fraud to include programs that help clients move from welfare to work.
A Healthy Kids Program in the Department of Public Aid that screens and immunizes children to keep them out of the hospital and in school. Screenings have increased, while overall Public Aid caseloads have declined.
A 30 percent reduction in the 1977 state infant mortality rate that stood at 15.9 per 1000, in part because of the Families with a Future program.
Acknowledgement of children risk of failing in the public schools. "We didn't think it was our job to worry about the 3- and 4-year-olds until they entered our schools." He said 19,000 of the 112,000 children judged to need preschool services are now being served.
Increased efforts to fight drug and
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alcohol abuse through drug education in every Illinois school and through the Department of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, which will serve 95,000 people this year.
Thompson listed numerous other accomplishments, including:
5,579,000 men and women at work, 625,000 more than in the 1980-1982 recession. Manufacturing jobs have increased three years in a row and non-manufacturing jobs for seven straight years.
Ending acrimony between the governor and legislature that had existed under his predecessor, Dan Walker.
Improving relations between business and labor, and through the efforts of the two sides reforming workers compensation and unemployment insurance laws.
Adding 11,000 beds to the prison system, nearly doubling the capacity and opening or expanding 12 prisons.
Creating class X sentences with mandatory prison sentences for the most serious crimes.
Building the Central Illinois Expressly to serve western Illinois and re-constructing U.S. 51 (I-39) between Rockford and Decatur.
Making the State Fair in Springfield a showplace and acquiring and energizing the DuQuoin State Fair.
Then Thompson departed nostalgia to defend his administration. He defended state taxation: "Some will say the only reason we've been able to accomplish all of that and more is because state government has been 'tax happy.' They conveniently forget a few taxes we had in 1977 that are history today." The governor pointed to $6 billion in tax relief that included elimination of the inheritance tax along with the sales taxes on machinery and equipment used in manufacturing, farming, printing, and oil and coal exploration. (He also claimed the sales lax on food and medicine was gone, although a 1 percent state tax, redistributed to local governments, exists today.) Thompson also touted farmland assessment changes.
Thompson, labeled the "tax and spend governor" by his opponents, vigorously defended Illinois' spending record. He said that the burden from state taxes is not as high as in other midwestern states with whom Illinois competes for jobs. The state's "proudest accomplishment," Thompson said, has been to hold state spending below growth in personal income since 1977: "In the last 13 years state government has delivered efficiently more services to more people than at any time in its history. And the share of the dollars that we take from people's income in Illinois to do it is lower than it was in 1977.''
The governor even more stridently defended the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs (DCCA), embattled since state auditors criticized the program in August. Thompson said the agency was born 10 years ago of the need to compete with other states for jobs. "We had the political will you and Ito invest in our future. We took the long-term task of rebuilding Illinois, and we have succeeded."
After he established that he and lawmakers created DCCA, Thompson pointed out that both had benefited. "Today DCCA is the best-equipped, thanks to you, and most aggressive, thanks to them, economic development agency in America and one that has been active in each and every one of your legislative districts.'' He ticked off economic development successes and credited them all to DCCA. He thanked DCCA.
There was more: "Some in this election year are not so appreciative. Some folks would rather use DCCA as a punching bag than as an economic development tool." He issued a challenge. "Are you going to ignore our gains and keep a state agency busy fending off political attacks? Or will you have the political will and the political moxie to build up, not tear down?"
Thompson also laid out an agenda that will stretch beyond his final 369 days in office. He said that the state must address equity in education finance. To ignore the issue leaves the opportunity for a federal judge to impose a plan, he warned.
Thompson praised the initial Chicago school reform efforts, but said that the quality of education must be analyzed all across the state. He said that the education crisis threatens the nation. "Sixty percent of high school seniors, nationwide, cannot correctly add up the cost of a cheeseburger, fries and milk shake at the lunch counter." Thompson said the end to education reform is far away. "Do you have the political will to see to it that reforms are supported by dollars and by action?'' he challenged lawmakers.
Thompson promised action on health care. "The American health care system was once the envy of the world. Now, it's a model of inefficiency." He contrasted the miracle of breakthroughs in transplantation with poor families waiting in crowded emergency rooms for basic service. A summit on health care in Cook County and a study of ways to make health insurance affordable for workers will come before lawmakers by spring. "I hope we have the political will to do it," Thompson said.
Finally, the governor urged lawmakers to act to protect the environment. He said that the state must take steps to deal with the "garbage glut'' that results from nearly 15 million tons of garbage that is put in landfills annually, landfills that will run out of space within 10 years. He suggested that lawmakers may be forced to return from local governments to the state government the authority to site landfills. Thompson said that Illinois should cut the amount of waste going to landfills by 50 percent by the end of the century by encouraging recycling and helping develop new markets for recycled products.
Lawmakers generally lauded Thompson's speech, granting him the right to nostalgia after 13 years. Republicans praised the speech. Democrats faulted its lack of specific initiatives, but said Thompson should have his say. Most critical was House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago) who termed the tone very defensive: "I think it indicated that Illinois has not recovered from its economic slump."
Thompson's speech rambled long. "There can't be any retribution for length when it's your last speech," he joked. There was little substance. He said that initiatives would wait until his March 7 Budget Address. Reforming education, building landfills and providing health care will all cost money.
Although the speech was defensive, it took the political offensive. Thompson, a lame duck whose record will be a campaign issue, defended his administration's spending and job creation performance when he held center stage. Whether or not he made the case, to the extent that Thompson tagged criticism of DCCA and state spending as "political," he made it harder for Democrats who want to capture the governorship to sustain their attacks.
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