New Beginnings in Illinois?

As the sun set on the political career of President Obama after his farewell address in Chicago, a new dawn broke in Springfield with the January 11 inauguration of the Illinois General Assembly’s House of Representatives. But while an inauguration is supposed to signify new beginnings, tensions from the past legislative term showed signs of carrying over into the new session. The banners and programs at the inauguration proudly displayed a famous quote by John F. Kennedy: “Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” But today, many Illinoisans are still wondering when this political gridlock will finally be resolved.

The reality is that the One Hundredth General Assembly has great challenges to overcome. The pension crisis has no end in sight, the state’s debt is growing with no signs of slowing down, and residents are leaving the state at alarming rates—faster than any other state in the nation. We need infrastructure. We need lower property taxes. We need to protect human services. And after almost two long, hard, and damaging years, we still need a budget.

The inauguration featured many speakers. Representatives were impassioned and excited for the new term to get underway, and they all put emphasized bipartisanship, families, the future, and the great humility that public service should bring. They reminded each other of why they are here and who they are representing. But the political rhetoric and back-and-forth brought to light the old frustration of past terms.

Representative Michael Madigan was re-elected as the speaker of the house in a sixty-six vote sweep with only one Democrat voting ‘present.’ This comes as no surprise, given that Madigan has held that seat almost continuously since 1983. In his acceptance speech, Madigan referenced  a December article in Crain’s Chicago Business, noting its emphasis on the downfalls of a cost-based approach to economic development policies. Instead, he argued that Illinois should assume a “growth-focused approach,” where minimizing costs is not the only goal. While introducing the article, he pointedly addressed House Republicans and briefly aligned them with President-elect Donald Trump by holding up the article and saying, “And for our Republican friends, there is a nice picture of Donald Trump.” Madigan went on to attack the House Republicans’ approach to fixing Illinois’s economy. “No state in the United States of America will offer lower labor costs than Mexico,” he noted, adding that a focus entirely on cost would be a “race to the bottom.”

Minority Leader Jim Durkin, the Republicans’ nominee for speaker, focused his speech at the inauguration on the need to pass a balanced budget. He acknowledged the anger and frustration Illinois citizens have felt, and said that paying off state debt should be the number one concern of the House this term. He told the Democrats that he would work with them under certain conditions—namely, after passing a balanced budget. He also briefly touched on his desire to work on lessening gun violence in Chicago, saying, “We must take the streets back from those cowardly thugs who have destroyed neighborhoods and families.” Durkin made it clear that the gun issue in Illinois is not yet over.

In his farewell address, Obama reminded Americans that in this time of division we are often arguing about the methods of achieving the right thing, and not what is right itself. “We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves,” he said. He reinforced the notion that our ideals, our beliefs, and our goals often align, but the small details of how to get there—to our ideal society—are bogging us down and creating hateful, dishonest, and downright ugly politics.

In Illinois, we must remember the same concept. In the public spotlight of the inauguration, both sides spoke of reviving the middle class, passing a budget, and moving Illinois forward; but our discussion has now turned from what needs to be done to how it needs to be done. Progress requires our representatives to take a step back and see the common ground that they share with one another. Every member wants to end the gun violence in Chicago. All of them care deeply about the economic well-being of families and businesses across Illinois. Let our members focus on what they can achieve together, rather than how to push their own goals through without support from across the aisle.

After State Representative Carol Sente, a Democrat from the Fifty-Ninth District, participated in her fourth inauguration, she wrote in a statement to the Gate: “With the significance of a 100th General Assembly beginning in Illinois this week, I hope it will bring with it the promise of stronger cooperation, compromise and bipartisan solutions. We must each do our part.”

Sente also commented on the bright future of upcoming reforms, continuing: “I find the recent Senate announcement of a series of budget and reform bills very promising. I commend President Cullerton and Leader Radogno for taking the lead and spelling out about a dozen bills that collectively will move our state forward. While there are some items in this package I like very much, there are others that I like less. Regardless, we can no longer just say No; we all need to contribute ideas and energy toward working out the details of these bills as quickly as possible so we can pass a responsible, full year, bipartisan budget by February 1.”

As Obama said in his farewell address, “All of us have more work to do.” This new assembly cannot be distracted by the politics in Washington, DC. Trump may get all of the soundbites on the news, but that does not mean that the work being done in Springfield is any less important. There is work to be done in every level of government across this nation, from village boards to city councils, from state legislators to Congress. Each and every member has work to do. We need focused, unwavering representatives who are committed to the ideals that Illinois voters supported.

Although most Americans pay little attention to local and state-level politics, these are the governments that make a difference. The citizens of Illinois are beginning to hold their representatives accountable, and hopefully, this term, it will work.

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