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Opinion

STATE AFFAIRS: More on Downstate matters

I appear to have struck a positive chord among many readers with a recent column that worried Downstate Illinois is becoming irrelevant to the power brokers of Illinois, nearly all of whom reside in metropolitan Chicago.

More emails than typical have been coming my way saying, in effect, “You’re right on, Jim!” One well-known statewide figure, whom most of you would recognize, called to declare that I was “spot on” in my column, adding:

“Jim, I talk to audiences all over Illinois, including in Chicago, and you are absolutely right: Downstate doesn’t matter to powerful Chicagoans, while my Downstate audiences are distressed that we seem forgotten out here.”

Based on a decade of writing this column for 20 newspapers all across Downstate, I know from emails that my readers are knowledgeable and thoughtful.

So, please help me with feedback on the following musings:

Should we create a nonprofit think tank and advocacy group for purposes of building a more positive future for the communities and people of Downstate Illinois? And if so, what should such look like, at least initially?

The range of options includes:

• A 501-c-3, tax deductible, educational yet limited advocacy organization, the most popular organizational popular format.

• A 501-c-4 lobbying organization of limited tax deductibility. I used to head a prominent statewide 501-c-4. We lobbied, testified extensively before the legislature, but did not contribute money to candidates.

• An informal advocacy group within the political world. For example, at one time there was an active, bipartisan “Downstate Caucus” in the state legislature, which met to discuss and develop legislative initiatives. I am told, however, that House Speaker Mike Madigan doesn’t like competing power bases, so he squelched participation by his party’s members.

• A coalition of existing groups that would collaborate to pursue initiatives and activities of mutual benefit for Downstate. To illustrate, there is at present a coalition of business and union organizations that work together to promote increased support for transportation projects.

First, of course, there would have to be a convincing program of initiatives that would hold strong promise for adding value to Downstate Illinois. Lacking a clear vision of what to pursue and how to pursue it, there is no reason to create yet one more group.

There are plenty of obvious issues that relate closely to Downstate Illinois and its future:

• Economic development. Western Illinois University political science head Keith Boeckelman has written a persuasive paper that contends Illinois has basically two economies, one in metro-Chicago and another Downstate. He suggests we need different sets of policies for each; for example, maybe Right to Work for Downstate only, to make the region more competitive with neighboring states.

• Transportation. The quality of our dense network of interstates and feeder highways, waterways, and railroads is critical to Downstate.

• Education funding. Most Downstate school districts have significantly less local property tax wealth per pupil than do those in metro-Chicago. Illinois has a new funding formula to address this, yet if there is no additional funding, the new formula is mostly a hollow victory.

• Higher education. Most Illinois public as well as private colleges and universities are located Downstate; their strength is critical to the region’s future.

• Climate change. Traditional Illinois crops may be hurt by warmer conditions. On the other hand, if the South and Southwest become intolerably hot and evermore drought prone, Downstate may look more attractive in relative terms for re-location in the coming decades.

• The lack of a Downstate brand. Folks in metro-Chicago and beyond don’t know what we have to offer in terms of our many towns of “dear hearts and gentle people.” How about, simply: “Downstate matters!” Attitude adjustment. Downstaters need to be convinced that they and their communities do count, and can have positive futures.

These are tough issues to tackle. They need analysis and creative thought. Then, promotion and advocacy are needed. Partners are critical as well; many groups, from labor to business to university think tanks, are pursuing one or more of the issue areas dot-pointed above.

If a new group could add value, it would take seed money to launch the effort. Where might start-up funds come from: Downstate corporate foundations? Individual membership dues? Internet “crowd funding?”

As readers can see, the above is off-the-top-of-the-noggin thinking. I need your feedback; more heads are sure better than one, especially this one. Is there a nugget (or more) of an idea anywhere above that is worth pursuing? If so, how would you suggest proceeding?

Downstate Illinois matters!

• JIM NOWLAN is a former Illinois legislator, agency director and aide to three governors. He also was lead author of "Illinois Politics: A Citizen's Guide" (University of Illinois Press, 2010). Nowlan can be reached at jnowlan3@gmail.com.

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