Authors see ending corruption as first step in fixing Illinois

James Nowlan, left, and J. Thomas Johnson
Posted: Aug. 5, 2014 10:41 am Updated: Aug. 19, 2014 12:15 pm

Herald-Whig Senior Writer

What's the first thing that should be done to "fix" Illinois government?

James Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson know the state has many problems, but they would start by teaching ethics and working to end a "culture of corruption" that they say has made Illinois the punch line in so many jokes about corrupt politics.

Corruption was among the problems that prompted the two former government officials to write the book "Fixing Illinois: Politics and Policy in the Prairie State," in which they outline 98 suggestions -- or solutions -- for fixing Illinois.

"We hope to start a discussion about Illinois as a state because there is not enough long-term thinking about the state," Nowlan said as the pair visited Quincy on Monday.

Nowlan is a former state lawmaker and University of Illinois professor, and Johnson is a former director for the Illinois Department of Revenue and president emeritus of the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois. They classify themselves as moderate Republicans and as people with a deep affection for the state.

Johnson said Illinois has a negative reputation arising from political scandals, a poor business climate, overdue payments to vendors and other budgetary ills. That will only change if people admit there are problems and take action, Johnson said.

"Our book will be successful if in the next four years someone takes leadership on any one of these ideas and improves on it," Johnson said.

To battle corruption, the pair suggest an independent commission be in charge of drawing legislative districts. Schools also could be mandated to teach government and civics, with a focus on ethics, and government workers or newly elected lawmakers could be required to take ethics training.

Among the book's other recommendations are that Illinoisans rethink having the nation's highest number of governmental units, including townships and special districts. Rather than suggesting the dissolution of township boards or the consolidation of special road districts or school districts, Johnson asks how many governmental units would be needed if someone was starting the state "with a clean state."

They also suggest that Illinois find new ways to fund transportation. They said diversions that take transportation money for other purposes should be outlawed. In addition, the state could institute a graduated motor vehicle registration fee structure that charges more for high-dollar vehicles. Congestion pricing and tolls could be used more in urban areas.

"We need to invest in our infrastructure. It's the critical jewel in our somewhat tarnished crown. It may be painful, but it's going to be necessary to maintain this great strength that we have in Illinois," Nowlan said.

Johnson also wants to see the state change the way it budgets.

"We need to have one budget for transportation and another budget for everything else," he said.

He believes transportation needs its own "budget bucket" because it involves multiyear projects. Having a dedicated and understandable budget also would let lawmakers get a better handle on transportation work.

Going one step further, Johnson and Nowlan say there are more than 900 dedicated funds in Illinois and most of those draw money from the general fund. Yet when those dollars get into dedicated funds, it is rare that lawmakers take notice of them.

Education funds, for instance, come out of the general fund. If dedicated funds were not siphoned out of the general fund for those other 900 funds, they say it would be obvious that they are in competition with education.

To fix the business climate, Nowlan and Johnson want to lower costs in the workers' compensation program and reduce the corporate income tax level to no more than was collected before a tax hike was approved in January 2011.

Although the book has 98 suggestions, the authors say there could be two or three times that many solutions for the state's problems. Admitting the problems is the first step in curing them, Johnson said.

Since the book was published by the University of Illinois Press, Johnson has been especially vocal in calling for an end to all pensions for elected officials.

"Pension of any sort are part of a compensation package for career employment. Elected officials are not in a career. A pension is not appropriate in that setting," Johnson said.