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Illinois Issues
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Retrospective Part 1: Three decades of public affairs journalism

This coming January, Illinois Issues will enter its fourth decade of publication. And throughout the next year we’ll celebrate that achievement by exploring the challenges Illinoisans are likely to face over the next three decades. In the final months of this year, though, we’ll look back at some of the policy concerns, political events and personalities that caught our attention, and possibly yours, over the past 30 years. The magazine put out its first issue in January 1975 with the stated mission of offering in-depth reporting and analysis on state government and politics. A lot has happened since then. So our choices on what to highlight are necessarily arbitrary. Political power shifted; the demographics of the state changed; people stepped onto the public stage, then off; and new concerns required action, including the rise of the global economy, the rapid changes in computer technology and the increasing need for security against terror. What is striking, though, is just how many issues recurred and evolved through most of those 30 years: school funding, for instance; the cost of health care; energy resources; economic development; transportation; crime. This month, we highlight four such issues. 

The Editors

Welfare reform
In 1996, Congress moved the nation across a momentous line, ending 60 years of social policy and leaving in its place a slogan: welfare-to-work. Under the federal law, families are no longer entitled to income support. Instead, everyone is required to find work. Nobody will get help for more than a total of five years. Illinois adopted those guidelines, but efforts at such reforms began in this state as early as the mid-1980s. The following excerpt from the magazine examines the debate two years before the federal changes. 

Three years ago Karen Dare decided she’d had it just sitting at home collecting a welfare check. Twenty-four years old and a high school dropout, Dare decided to do something with her life. She enrolled in a high school equivalency class at John A. Logan Community College, situated between Marion and Carbondale in deep southern Illinois. Her prospects may have seemed bleak, even to her. She had already flunked the GED exam four times. And her 
own confidence was weak: “I was scared every morning just to get up,” she recalls.

But watching her twin boys, then age seven, and her four-year-old daughter growing up emboldened her sense of purpose. “Mainly, I wanted to do this 
for my kids to be proud of me.”

So it will be with special pride that Karen Dare will cross the stage at the John A. Logan graduation ceremonies next month to get her associate’s degree. Come fall, Dare expects to trade her welfare check for a paycheck when her apprenticeship as a dental assistant comes to an end and she takes on a 
full-time job.

“She’s our success story,” beams Jane Minton, the coordinator of John A. Logan’s welfare-to-work programs. Minton is like an all-purpose mother hen who watches over her brood of students. Karen Dare’s success story shows that with gumption, grit, lots of help, some luck and people who believe in them, people can go from welfare to work.

There is a way out of welfare. Dare’s success story contains many lessons for welfare reformers who, as President Clinton has vowed, are trying “to end welfare as we know it.” Chief among those lessons is that education and training can work — indeed, are vital — to make a person marketable in an economy that has become punishing for the uneducated and unskilled. It also demonstrates the need for a variety of financial supports, such as child care and transportation, that help welfare recipients survive. It shows the importance of “human supports” as well: the encouragement, the nurturing, and the assistance of someone who can untangle red tape, find child care, locate a doctor willing to accept a Medicaid card, type an English paper on deadline; someone who can help pick them up and cheer them on.

Dare’s story and those of others show that the journey out of welfare is not a giant leap, but a series of small steps. One sure step is education — from basic academic skills like reading and arithmetic to basic job survival skills like punctuality and following directions. Another useful step often is employment: part-time jobs or low-pay entry-level positions that give welfare recipients a feel for the world of work and an appreciation for the importance of education and advanced training. Another crucial step is job training — teaching a vocation such as computer programming or a professional career like nursing. 

But those who have made it off welfare, and those who have helped them, agree that there is another, seminal, and somewhat intangible step that makes the whole journey possible — the ability to say, with conviction and confidence: I can make it. It is this “over-the-hump” step that begins the journey and so often interrupts it.

Mainly, the successes of people like Karen Dare show that the path from welfare to work is usually a long one, filled with detours and roadblocks, 
triumphs and setbacks, steps forward and back and forward again, one difficult step at a time. 

Donald Sevener, April 1994

Tax caps
In 1991, Illinois began setting limits on local property tax extensions. Voters demanded them in the five counties that ring Chicago, where, in the four years prior to the cap, property taxes grew an average of 13.5 percent a year. The cap limits the tax burden local governments such as school districts can impose each year without voter approval to 5 percent or the annual rate of inflation, which-ever is lower. But, as this excerpt shows, the tax revolt began earlier in Illinois — and even earlier in California, which set property tax limits through the voter-approved Proposition 13. 

In the turbulent wake of Proposition 13, the newly elected 81st General Assembly will be confronted with many tax cutting proposals. One of the most prominent will be the Taxpayers’ Rights Amendment proposed by the Illinois Tax Limitation Committee. The committee, headed by Rep. Donald Totten (R., 
Hoffman Estates), listed 80 members of the current 80th General Assembly as supporters of the amendment — 66 Republicans and 14 Democrats.

In broad terms the proposed Taxpayers’ Rights Amendment would do two things. First, it would set a limit on the amount of revenue the state of Illinois can take in during the fiscal year and second, it would limit the amount of property taxes which can be levied by non-home rule units and school districts.

Charles Minert, December 1978 

Capital punishment
In 1977, the Illinois General Assembly reinstated the death penalty. Over the years, lawmakers made modifications. They replaced the electric chair with lethal injection and added to the factors that, together with murder, can make a defendant eligible for death. Beginning in 1990, the state executed 12 murderers. But, responding to wrongful convictions, then-Gov. George Ryan called a halt and asked for reforms that could reduce error. Before leaving office, he cleared Death Row. This excerpt appeared weeks before passage of the 1977 law. 

Few issues stir public passions and individual soul-searching as much as capital punishment. Legislative debate and public hearings sometimes become forums for scriptural exhortations, libertarian denunciations, legal analyses and a variety of emotional outbursts. There is no doubt, however, that the public, like its lawmakers, is firmly in favor of the death penalty as the best way to deal with murderers. 

Yet, vocal opponents claim murder by the state is no less perverse or senseless than murder by individuals. With last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Gregg v. Georgia) upholding capital punishment within certain strict guidelines, Illinois, like the rest of the states, is rushing to revive the death penalty. The sensationally publicized case of Utah killer Gary Gilmore, illustrating that state’s reluctance to carry out the ruling it imposed, brought the issue to the forefront of public attention. Yet, there are profound and persistent questions in the capital punishment debate that have gone unanswered for centuries as civilized societies have sought ways to protect themselves and punish criminals. Against this backdrop, it is only a matter of time before an Illinois governor signs the death penalty into law.

Gary Delsohn, March 1977 

Illinois Issues, September 2004

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