Illinois continues to be an ideal state for business, but the failure of lawmakers to act on its deepening fiscal problems threatens that robust climate.
That was the consensus of a panel of current and former state legislators Wednesday at the Daily Herald Business Ledger Newsmakers' Forum Legislative Update. More than 100 suburban business leaders and entrepreneurs attended the breakfast event at the Cantigny Park in Wheaton.
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While the speakers noted Illinois continues to offer excellent resources, a great location and a well-educated workforce, the state's pension debt and budget problems have hurt Illinois' ability to keep and expand businesses, as well as compete with neighboring states to lure new businesses, they said. The panel members cited recent news reports of a University of Chicago graduate locating his $1.4 billion business in Iowa, even though Illinois offered a better incentive package. The business owner said his decision was based on uncertainty about Illinois' economic and ethical climate, according to the reports.
"That sums up where we are in the state of Illinois," said state Rep. Michael Connelly, a Republican from Naperville. "But we can do better. We can still dominate."
While the lawmakers agreed the state pension debt is a crisis that must be addressed now, state Sen. Linda Holmes, a Democrat from Plainfield, noted the state until recent years often underfunded pensions and said solving the crisis will not be quick or easy.
"Fifty years of mismanaging the pension cannot be corrected overnight," she said. "We are facing decades of making tough decisions."
During a question-and-answer session, Connelly said switching the state retirement system from pensions to a 401K program has proved successful in Rhode Island and is one of many options that the state could consider. He added the pension crisis should be resolved through the General Assembly and not through a constitutional amendment.
In addition to the pension crisis, the state also needs to rewrite its business tax structure to stimulate the private sector to grow and create more jobs, according to state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Republican from Hinsdale. Dillard said Illinois has been one of the worst states in the nation in generating new jobs and keeping existing ones, citing reports that list the state 46th in the nation in new job creation.
"The way to stimulate the economy is to get more jobs into the private sector," Dillard said.
To do that, he said, the state needs to revise its tax and workers' compensation laws so businesses can spend less in those areas and invest more in their businesses.
"The one thing we've got to do is get our fiscal house in order," he said.
The panel agreed that a bipartisan effort is needed among state lawmakers to fix the problems facing the state.
Most panel members were critical of Gov. Pat Quinn and House Speaker Michael Madigan, both Democrats, and said it is up to voters to decide how well their representatives are doing through the election process.
"You are business owners. If you asked someone to do a job and they didn't do it, what would you do?" asked retired state Rep. Lee Daniels of Elmhurst.
"To quote Clint Eastwood, 'We own the country,'" he told the audience. "It's up to us to make sure the job is done."
AT&T Illinois was a presenting sponsor of the Daily Herald Business Ledger Newsmakers' Forum.