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Edgar's plan to put Illinois on new road

Charles N. Wheeler III


Willie Nelson won't be appearing at the Illinois State Fair this summer. Dismaying as that news may be to fans of the legendary country singer, including former Gov. James R. Thompson, it's just another reminder that Illinois has its first new chief executive in 14 years.

Gov. Jim Edgar has been painstakingly careful not to badmouth his predecessor, former Gov. Thompson. But in many unspoken ways, most more substantive than who's entertaining at the State Fair, the new governor has tried to demonstrate major points of disagreement with the style and the policies of the prior administration.

In doing so, Edgar has shown clearly that he intends to reshape his office and all of state government to a new vision. In the actions-speak-louder-than-words category, consider these examples:

The day after taking office, Edgar announced an 11 percent cut in his office budget, including eliminating 35 jobs and cutting executive security by a quarter. No reflection on Thompson, of course; Edgar just wanted to "rearrange priorities" and "shape it in what we think is the most efficient manner." He said, "The way we think that can be done is by reducing the head count."

The governor named a career professional, Kirk Brown, to head the state Department of Transportation, a post traditionally viewed as a choice plum for political operatives. His choice of a civil engineer for transportation secretary wasn't a rap at past political appointees, of course. "I think most of them did a good job, but I want someone who knows from Day 1 what needs to be done and knows the transportation field," the governor said, "not someone who would have to learn on the job."

In his State of the State address Edgar vowed to streamline the state Commerce and Community Affairs Department. The state's economic development goals and programs will be "clearly articulated . . . subject to measurable results and accountable to the Illinois taxpayers," he said.

No more chasing smokestacks with megabuck incentive packages, a hallmark of DCCA under Thompson, who created the agency, nurtured its unbridled growth, and defended its controversial policies. Instead, said Edgar, "We will concentrate on the retention of existing Illinois jobs and businesses rather than the attraction of new businesses. Incentives for specific projects will be de-emphasized, and state bureaucrats will cease making loans and investment decisions that should be made by those in the private sector."

Pinstripe patronage the giving no-bid contracts to campaign contributors, political allies or other well-connected folks is on the way out, Edgar said in his State of the State address. "I soon will announce a procedure for awarding contracts for legal service, bond counsel, investment advice and underwriting on a rotation basis to qualified professionals because of what they know and not whom they know," he said. "The same no-nonsense business experts who develop that procedure also will determine a means for evaluating the work of those contractors to see if taxpayers got their money's worth."

The budget he will submit to the legislature on March 6 will be balanced without the sort of fiscal smoke-and-mirrors employed by lawmakers and the governor in the past. No new programs with only partial funding; no inflated revenue figures; no borrowing from earmarked funds; no pushing next year's bills into the following year's budget. "Someone has said that all the tricks have been used to put this year's budget together," Edgar observed a few weeks ago. "There's nothing left for fiscal year 1992 . . . . I think we're down to the point where if we don't have the money, we can't spend it."

Indeed, even the governor's State of

8/March 1991/Illinois Issues

State message contrasted sharply to past Thompson addresses, which often unveiled grandiose programs like Build Illinois or other new initiatives. Edgar's speech offered few surprises; rather, it was largely a methodical reiteration of familiar campaign themes delivered in workmanlike fashion. Nonetheless, as Senate President Philip J. Rock (D-8, Oak Park) noted, "It was a pretty ambitious agenda he laid out."

In broad strokes, the address reflected Edgar's ideas of the "bold responses" and "innovative answers" that are needed to meet the challenges confronting Illinois as it nears the 21st century. Throughout, he stressed the notion of prevention; the state must do more to keep "today's colds from becoming pneumonia tomorrow" in areas as diverse as early childhood education, drug use, health care and governmental ethics.

Some of Edgar's specific proposals are as good as dead already; no one expects, for example, that Democratic leaders will permit major changes in the way personal injury lawsuits are handled, such as a limit on pain-and-suffering awards. Others should find little quarrel from lawmakers; after all, who can argue against the notion that all kids should enter kindergarten ready to learn, or the idea that adoption regulations should be simplified so that it's easier to find homes for hard-to-place youngsters?

On some tough issues, Edgar even borrowed a page from the Thompson book, proposing future conferences to plot antidrug efforts, shape a housing agenda and fashion a blueprint for natural resource use. Here, too, the difference between the two men will become apparent, one senior Edgar aide predicted, when the panels' efforts actually bear fruit.

The governor's real test will come in achieving a crucial trio of goals he's set that are difficult but not impossible. The list includes limiting future property tax increases, raising income tax rates permanently and forcing the state to live within its means. All three objectives eluded Thompson, who embraced them with varying degrees of fervor over the years. Accomplishing those tasks would allow Edgar to claim with some justification that he has indeed set Illinois on a new road.

Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times.

March 1991/Illinois Issues/9

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