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THE RISE OF REGIONALISM IN ILLINOIS GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS

Excerpts from a new book by Samuel K. Gove and James D. Nowlan


Illinois Politics and Government: The Expanding Metropolitan Frontier, by Samuel K. Gove and James D. Nowlan, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Since the end of World War II, the primary political regions of Illinois, Chicago and downstate, have lost population, wealth and power to the suburban collar, which has expanded outward from Chicago. At the same time, regional politics has intensified in the legislature. The General Assembly has become an arena in which each region battles for its own "fair share," rather than an instrument for comprehensively addressing the state's problems. The authors foresee the emergence of political coalitions linking downstate and Chicago in efforts to protect their "shares" and contend with the growing suburban collar.

As the new century dawns in Illinois, the landscape will have tilted more sharply toward the expanding metropolitan frontier, yet the individualistic government-as-marketplace culture will endure.

Citizens of the megalopolis along Lake Michigan will still seek the wide open spaces and will motor outward as far as Rockford, enveloping DeKalb and Morris and bringing suburban lifestyles to communities such as Mendota, Rochelle, and Princeton, eighty miles and more from Chicago. DeKalb is only forty minutes along I-88 from the heart of the western suburbs and its mother lode of jobs. Princeton, an attractive town of seven thousand, straddles both 1-80 and the Amtrak line that connects to the western suburbs and Chicago. As of 1994, housing values there were escalating rapidly, and other signals were clear enough: early retirees and telecommuters were buying homes, and trendy shops were opening near the Main Street cafes where farmers and townsfolk gather to gossip.

Under this relentless tide, the old downstate region will become physically smaller and politically weaker. As the suburban frontier expands outward, the former downstate residents and their leaders will face new problems. They will build streets, schools, sewers, and waste treatment facilities, cope with an influx of newcomers, and try to hold down property taxes on ever-more-valuable homes.

The media will help them forget about downstate and concentrate on their own issues. Grown bored with Springfield, the Chicago media had gutted their coverage by the mid-1990s. The Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, each of which had two permanent reporters in the Capitol pressroom in the 1980s, were down to one apiece by 1994. Chicago television stations never bothered to staff the capital. At the same time, media resources were being poured into the collar counties. By 1994, the Tribune had four major suburban bureaus and five satellite bureaus with fifty-one full-time suburban reporters.

The old problems will still be around, of course; they too will ride the wave of suburbanization. As longtime suburbanites move farther out, urban dwellers of lesser means will replace them, especially in the older suburbs, where the problems of urban America were already evident in the 1990s. In a grand and ironic illustration of the urban development cycle, the inner core will continue its rejuvenation as industrial sites and uninhabitable properties are cleared and fenced so that urban homesteaders can create what the exurbanites seek: secure and attractive places to live.

Since the origin of Illinois, political leaders have bargained for funding and benefits for their respective regions. In

Illinois Issues July 1996 ¦ 25


the 1830s, Abraham Lincoln and eight fellow legislators from the Springfield area (they were known as the "Long Nine" because each was over six feet tall) worked as a bloc to move the state capital from Vandalia in southern Illinois to Springfield in rapidly growing central Illinois.

The state's leaders have since distilled the bargaining process into a fine art of regional quid pro quo, taking in everything from school aid and transportation to state university campuses and construction of civic centers. Compromise is the key, as is sharing the wealth. In 1984, the Chicago public school system requested $22 million from the legislature to end a strike. Leaders for the other two regions stepped forward, stated their price, and upped the tab to $75 million, providing something for everyone. When the Chicago Transit Authority sought an increased state subsidy in 1985, the legislature took care of it after arranging for similar boosts for several downstate transit districts.

As in any negotiation, the uncomfortable question is who gets the better part of the deal. Downstaters have long believed Chicago drains resources from the hinterland, especially for welfare spending. Chicagoans complain that downstaters waste money to build highways in sparsely populated areas. Collar county leaders, citing the tax load, whine that the other regions take advantage of the hard-earned wealth of the suburban middle class.

The Legislative Research Unit found in 1987 that the collar counties paid more proportionately in taxes than either downstate or Chicago and received less back in spending for state programs. That did not surprise political economists James Fossett and Fred Giertz. Governments, after all, are in the business of taking in taxes and redistributing the resources, generally from the more prosperous to those less so. Even greater redistribution might well be in order, say Fossett and Giertz: "Considering the severity of their problems, Chicago and other hard-pressed areas are receiving relatively less state funds from a number of program areas, while the prosperous areas are receiving relatively more. The state appears to be spreading funds more broadly than the distribution of social and governmental problems suggest is desirable."

But that shift will not happen without a fight, in part because suburban legislators, as indeed most lawmakers in Illinois, have come to see political work as lifetime careers. To help their reelection chances, they have become more intent on showing the home folks that they bring in their fair share of money and projects. This tends to perpetuate the status quo and constrain redistribution from one region to another.

Whatever its faults, the individualistic culture shows a remarkable degree of resilience. The market-driven political culture by its very nature helps strong economic players become stronger and encourages the weaker players to find the right allies and develop the tactics needed to grab a piece of the action. So if the suburbs in the 1990s are climbing to the top of the hill, the careful observer will look at who is being displaced and consider how they might recover lost ground. The inescapable conclusion is that the coming years will see increased use of Chicago-downstate coalitions to confront the richer collar counties.

Downstaters and their city cousins have already begun to realize that they have more in common than previously thought. In 1990, when poor rural school districts were joined by the Chicago Board of Education in a lawsuit over school spending disparities, the Chicago Urban League and the Illinois Farm Bureau were additional unlikely allies. Two years later, when a constitutional amendment proposal sought increased school funding, the chief sponsors were a Chicago Democratic senator and a Republican senator-farmer from central Illinois. The business coalition that opposed the measure targeted its media campaign at the suburbs.

The school aid formula provides a lens that shows where the greatest needs are in Illinois. It bases allocations on property wealth, need, and the numbers of poor children and consistently shows that Chicago and downstate would almost always be the winners in terms of where more resources should be spent. In the 1994 gubernatorial campaign, Democratic candidate Dawn Clark Netsch proposed a state income tax that would be tied to property tax relief and increased state school aid. Confirming the obvious, the Legislative Research Unit showed inquiring legislators that in the aggregate Chicago and downstate would be net beneficiaries, at the expense of the collar counties.

An economic battle between the regions is heating up, in part because the collar counties have their own growing needs for transportation, higher education, and social services. With their budget tightening and the redistri-

AMERICAN STATES SERIES

The Republican-led Congress wants to toss responsibility back to state government. In fact, with that devolution of authority well under way, there may be no better time to bone up on the politics and structure of the 50 states.

As it happens, the University of Nebraska in Lincoln has launched a series about individual states. According to the press' announcement, the volumes "describe the unique political culture and history of each state, examine its political parties and interest groups, explain the institutional framework of the state's government, and place the state's politics within a federal context."

Illinois Politics and Government: The Expanding Metropolitan Frontier, by Samuel K. Gove and James D. Nowlan, is one of 16 volumes that have been completed, including one on our neighbor Michigan. The general editor of the series is John Kincaid. Daniel J. Elazar is founding editor.

Two other books of interest: Democracy in the Fifty States, by Kim Quaile Hill, and Drawing the Line: Legislative Ethics in the States, by Alan Rosenthal.

26 ¦ July 1996 Illinois Issues


bution of tax dollars continuing to favor the city and downstate, collar county leaders will insist, ever more intently as their power grows, upon accountability from Chicago and downstate on how the suburbanites' tax dollars are being spent. Such demands surfaced in 1993, when Senate President James "Pate" Philip of DuPage County insisted that Chicago public schools limit job protection for teachers in exchange for increased school funding.

Percentage of Illinois Population by Region, 1950-94

Illinois in the 1990s lacks a good reason to come together. There is little sense of statewide community. Residents of metropolitan Chicago tend to vacation in Wisconsin and Michigan, not downstate. The Cubs and the White Sox draw downstaters, but visitors seldom venture far from the buses parked near the ballparks. It is not unknown for a newly elected legislator from Chicago to make his first-ever trip downstate on the day he or she is sworn into office in Springfield.

Likewise, suburbanites spend little time in Chicago, and city dwellers tend to disdain the suburbs. In his role as manager for a statewide political campaign in 1978, one of the authors invited the campaign's collar county coordinators to Chicago's Loop for a luncheon meeting in the stately Walnut Room of Marshall Field's department store. "How often do you ladies come into the Loop," he asked. "Oh, I never come in," and "This is the first time I've been in the Loop in years" were typical responses.

Illinois has no unifying themes. There is no "Eyes of Texas" or "My Old Kentucky Home" to arouse sentiment. The fight song of the University of Illinois is little known outside the campus and alumni community. This helps explain why as of 1994 disparities in per pupil spending between poorest and richest schools were among the greatest among the states. There is almost no emotional connection from region to region, except perhaps distrust.

What does the future hold? The expansion of the metropolitan frontier will accelerate. Because of the increased work that can be accomplished away from the office, place will become less important to where many people work and more important to where they live. The trend to earlier retirement will fuel the outward wave, and as more jobs are created in the suburbs, more employees can locate farther out on the fringe and commute inward to their jobs, just as the original suburbanites commuted in to the central city.

The Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission will keep up the good fight against the excesses of sprawl. But its efforts probably will be to little avail because the siren call from the frontier is too compelling. As John Herbers notes from a national perspective, "In almost every contest between repairing the old and building anew in undeveloped areas, the new wins." He adds, "We have created a whole new form of the American community, one that is diffused, fragmented, and without a center, but also one that is charged with energy, individual initiative, and the capacity to organize around particular interests."

Consistent with this development, Chicago's lakefront business center and its environs will become even more vibrant. As diffusion increases throughout vast suburbia, the need will intensify for a strong regional center, a marketplace for action, creativity, ideas, and deals. Chicago will also become ever more at the heart of state politics. The major electronic and newspaper media based in the city reach three-quarters of the state's population, and the city is preferred to Springfield as a meeting place by most political, government, and association leaders, primarily because of transportation convenience. The futuristic James R. Thompson Center, adjacent to Chicago's city hall and the Cook County building, now surpasses the Capitol as a place to do state business.

With good location and natural resources and envied networks of rail, air, and interstate highway transportation, the state's diverse economy should chug along, relatively stable, with moderate growth. Illinois and its governments will continue to muddle along, supporting the business community that in turn supports the governments. Public policy responses will be cautious, conventional, and modest, as always. Illinois will someday address the glaring issue of disparities in education resources, probably when new political coalitions, under pressure from the civic and business communities, bargain tough over more state aid in grudging return for stricter accountability in how it is spent.

Samuel K. Gove is director emeritus at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs and professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is co-editor with Louis H. Masotti of After Daley: Chicago Politics in Transition. James D. Nowlan is an adjunct professor of public policy at Knox College and a senior fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs. He is the author of A New Game Plan for Illinois.

Illinois Issues July 1996 ¦ 27


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