OpEd: Reality check: Chicago business leaders can't afford to sit out this election

Monday, October 11, 2010

For the past decade, Illinois' political leaders have failed us. The Nov. 2 election offers our state a chance for a much-needed fresh start.

Business leaders must engage in elections at all levels if Illinois is to regain its standing as a prosperous and industrious state. In recent years, business owners and managers largely sat on the sidelines while politicians with little or no experience, knowledge or concern about commerce or economics ran the state. Consequently, when business-climate measures are compared among states, Illinois consistently ranks embarrassingly low.

The political class needs to know there are consequences for its selfish and inept approach to governing. The Democrats the electorate chose to run our state have failed at management, abused employers, ignored job losses and neglected Illinois' economy at the very time when we most need to restore prosperity. Our politicians need a serious reality check, while setting new priorities and clear objectives.

Here's the reality check: State government has overpromised its financial commitments around pensions and new programs and is overextended. Before any discussion of tax increases, the state must cut spending to match revenues.

The first priority is a balanced budget. How? Pay bond obligations. Pay pension obligations. Pay tax refunds. Get current with bill payments. Fundamentally restructure the big-ticket items—pensions, health care, education and corrections—to reduce costs while focusing on outcomes. At the same time, the state must still fund programs that meet the needs of the mentally and developmentally disadvantaged and ensure operation of law enforcement and public safety.

The second priority: Restore job growth and economic expansion. Illinois was hemorrhaging jobs long before the recession. A robust economy is fundamental to revenue growth. Besides establishing a pro-business tone and positive environment for investment, state government needs to engage private-sector leadership and support local economic development initiatives. Key components are infrastructure investments, international trade and guaranteeing a capable workforce.

State leaders should focus on long-term investments in people. First, invest in education and job training to provide an educated and productive workforce. Second, become a magnet for talented workers who see Illinois as an exciting, cutting-edge destination for innovation and progress. Establish a partnership with employers.

The governmental philosophy for reversing Illinois' fortunes is to promote self-worth, self-reliance and private-sector growth while reducing the role of government as provider. Success should be measured by educational attainment and by a decrease in the number of citizens caught in the criminal justice system or dependent on government services for economic well-being.

It has been said that voters get the government they deserve. Well, we deserve better. And business leaders must show the way.