Asked whether Illinois is a friendly climate for businesses, local legislators gave a mixed bag of answers at an Evanston Chamber of Commerce breakfast last week.
They acknowledged weaknesses at the government level, like pension debt and corruption, but stressed the state’s strengths in innovation, technology and culture, especially in the Chicago area.
“No offense to Milwaukee, Minneapolis or Detroit, but who wants to live there?” joked Cook County Commisioner Larry Suffredin. “We’ve got to remind people about the strengths of this area.”
“We’ve got to let people know that this isn’t the murder capital of the world,” he added.
Suffredin spoke at the chamber’s annual legislators breakfast along with U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-9th), state senators Heather Steans (D-7th) and Daniel Biss (D-9th), and state representatives Laura Fine (D-17th) and Robyn Gabel (D-18th). They talked about how the state was making progress on pension reform and adressed the effects of the government shutdown, in addition to sharing their opinions on the state’s business climate.
While Suffredin was largely positive, Steans had more criticisms to make. She said Illinois had to get its pension debt and public corruption under control in order to attract more businesses. And she pointed out that with 72,000 local government entities, Illinois has significantly more taxing bodies than any other state. Moves like eliminating Evanston Township (an action the city council is considering putting before voters), would help, Steans said.
Fine noted that Illinois has some of the best schools for training for tech jobs—but students tend to leave after graduation.
“Are there ways we can help students pay for school so they don’t leave with so much debt, and follow the lure of big paychecks out west?” Fine asked.
On a positive note, Illinois is ranked among the top 20 states for innovation, international trade and wind farms, according to Gabel.
“In my opinion, we need to focus on that,” she said. “Let’s go with our strengths.”
One piece of the puzzle toward improving the state’s business climate may be in sight, according to Biss. In June, he was appointed to a bipartisan committee working on a plan for reducing pension debt. He said he hoped they would come out with a plan that legislators could agree on sometime this fall.
“It’s absolutely within our grasp to achieve this,” Biss said.
Assuming legislators can reach agreement on a plan, reduced pension debt could have a huge impact on the state’s finances. Pension payments have grown from six percent of the state’s general revenue fund in 2008 to 23 percent today, according to Steans.
“There’s nothing more fundamental to the state than to restore any sort of financial integrity,” she said.
Schakowsky got a laugh from the audience Friday, when she told chamber members that she’d rather be there than back in Washington, D.C., where the partial government shutdown finally came to an end last week.
"What happened is no cause for jubilation, it's a cause for relief," she said, especially for government workers who were furloughed during the shutdown.
While Schakowsky said she was glad that lawmakers had agreed to extend the federal debt ceiling and reopen the government, she noted that there would be economic consequences. She quoted ratings agency S&P, which has estimated that the shutdown cost the U.S. economy $24 billion and slowed economic growth.
“We’re glad that this immediate crisis, self-inflicted, completely unnecessary crisis is over,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to move forward in a more rational way.”