Editor's Notebook: Lawmakers face some major challenges. Already the strains are apparent
So it begins. Illinois lawmakers have returned to Springfield and are getting under way on what could become the most significant spring session in recent memory — and most likely the longest-running since 2004, when an overtime session threatened lawmakers' July 4th festivities.
That year, the state budget was a shambles. Officials were sitting on overdue bills, delaying obligations to public pension systems and ignoring needed repairs on roads and schools. Lawmakers took a swing at providing adequate per pupil funding but dropped the ball on inequities in school spending.
Now it's déjà vu all over again.
Whatever the governor says in his budget address, now scheduled for March 7, and whatever he says about the state of the state, it's clear that he and lawmakers face some major challenges. Already the strains are apparent among the key players.
What should we watch for in the next few months? Bethany Carson, our Statehouse bureau chief, says the state's fiscal status will be under scrutiny, certainly. Yet both Democratic legislative leaders are making bold and contradictory statements about what they will consider. That, she says, "puts any new creative revenue ideas at the top of any watch list. We'll be watching for tax reform and privatization of the tollway system or the lottery. And there's always the proposal to expand gaming, with the possibility of creating four new casinos in the Chicago area."
But that's just half of the equation. "On the spending side," she says, "we're really going to watch for what form universal health care takes and what kinds of education spending reform will be proposed."
What makes this session significant? "The amount the state owes in the long term is daunting and how the state prepares this year will set the stage for the future."
Bethany will get some help covering all this. She is joined in our bureau this year by Deanese Williams-Harris, the magazine's Public Affairs Reporting intern. The graduate PAR program, headed by Illinois Issues columnist Charlie Wheeler here at the University of Illinois at Springfield, gives student journalists a chance to work with reporters in the Statehouse Press Room each spring. And Bethany believes Neacy will bring "a lot of perspective to the job. She looks at things through the eyes of people from around the state. She grew up in Chicago and went to school in Carbondale.
Neacy received her bachelor's degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, with a minor in political science. While at SIU, she was accepted into the McNair Scholars Program, where she analyzed the ways in which the Chicago newspapers covered residents of the Robert Taylor Homes and the Stateway Gardens public housing complexes. She also had an internship at the Southern Illinoisan.
She has been tracking legislative measures for us. As an example, she spotted the proposals to require preteen girls to get vaccinated for the human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted disease. Her feature on that controversial state and national issue appears this month.
What does she hope to accomplish as a Statehouse reporter this spring? "My focus is on trying to pick out what the public needs to know. I've tried to concentrate on what's important, the things that affect people's lives."
That's difficult to balance in a monthly format, of course. But Neacy has been helping Bethany with our Statehouse blog, which aims to track the action between editions of the magazine.
Now would be a good time to plug the magazine's online efforts. In fact, our recent reader survey shows that few of you are aware of our Web site or the Statehouse blog. Just under a third of you say you get your information about state government and politics through the Internet on a daily basis. Almost a quarter of you use the Internet to get such information several times a month. Yet 71 percent of you say you never use the magazine's Web site or blog — and the majority of you say you didn't know we had a Web site or a blog.
Bethany's blog is easily reached through the link at the top of our site. And she strives to provide links to more information. "The blogosphere," Bethany says, "gives us the opportunity to be immediate, while the magazine fills in the details. We can update between issues and give you a heads up on what to look for in the next magazine."
We think it's worth your while to check it out.
We're still mulling the meaning of our latest reader survey, but one result is clear. An overwhelming 91 percent of you rated Illinois Issues excellent or near-excellent. In the three surveys we have conducted over the past two decades, our "favorables," as they say in politics, keep going up. Another indicator is going up, too. A decade ago, 23 percent of you considered yourselves Internet savvy. Now, 80 percent of you can be called Internet savvy. That's why we're weighing additional ways to get information to you.
Still, we know the vast majority of you see the need for the kind of public affairs reporting and analysis the magazine provides. One of you gave this reason: "I read about issues that aren't even mentioned in the local news."
More than two-thirds of you say there is added value in our annual Roster of State Government Officials, which comes out this month (see inside for information on orders). It's "clear and concise," one of you wrote.
It's especially gratifying to note that support for the magazine crosses the partisan divide. Such bipartisan commitment is underlined by your response to our winter fundraising letter co-signed by former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and former Democratic Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, both of whom serve on our Advisory Board.
"We haven't always agreed on the best policy (or political!) direction for our state," their letter notes. "But we do agree on this. We believe that Illinois Issues magazine is essential reading for all Illinoisans, no matter their politics or home base."
If you are among those who have yet to accept their invitation to join in renewing that commitment, it's not too late. Send in your contribution return card or call 217-206-6084.
Why is the future of this magazine important? Here's what one of you had to say: "Illinois Issues is the place to turn to for comprehensive, intelligent and interesting coverage of the Illinois government scene."
We couldn't have said it better ourselves.
Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.
Illinois Issues, March 2007