By Douglas L. Whitley
The most important issues facing Illinois’ elected leaders are unacceptably high unemployment and the perennial public finance shortfalls exacerbated by a lagging economy. These are issues that can best be resolved by encouraging and facilitating private sector investment.
Yet you would not know it by observing our governments’ performance. Time and again we see the reputation of Chicago as “The City that Works” and the Prairie State’s storied connection to “Honest Abe” besmirched and tarnished.
Recently, we learned a planned multi-million dollar investment to establish a Ford dealership in Chicago has been frustrated with costly delays from political leverage being exerted over unrelated business interests. Last week we watched a former Congressman (Jesse Jackson, Jr.) and former Chicago Alderman (Sandi Jackson) get sentenced to federal prison.
The frequency of these actions goes to the heart of the Illinois business owner’s frustrations. Why is it so hard to do business in Illinois? Ask the Ricketts family about how easy it is to invest $500 million of private capital to renovate their own property. Ask Walmart about the barriers of entry into the Chicago market.
Chicago politicians stymied the build out of multiple locations, millions in construction investment, hundreds of jobs and economic opportunity in neighborhoods desperate for fresh food, affordable products and jobs. Aldermen even concocted special legislation to impose excessive, anti-competitive minimum wage requirements directed solely at the company.
Ask Northwestern University about the ease with which an under utilized property can be turned into a modern research facility. Why did ComEd have to struggle with the Governor, the Attorney General and the Commerce Commission in order to invest $3.5 billion towards introducing a safer, more efficient, state of the art electric grid to Chicago customers who will benefit from greater service quality and management of energy usage? How does one not recognize that such a program equates to equipment purchases from local suppliers, construction work and new permanent jobs?
Contractors engaged in the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway and the Englewood Fly-Over know “winning the low bid” exposes slim margins to further challenges associated with sub-contractors, minority set asides, excess of bureaucratic reporting and an occasional congressman’s suggestion that a favored party get a contract, too.
Oh, and least we forget…non-union contractors need not apply for the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on public works by Illinois governments. Illinois taxpayers are oblivious to the premium.
We saw the University of Illinois suffer a scandal over legislative intrusion and now we watch the transit boards imploding as cronyism and questionable appointments are exposed.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich thought his “golden” appointments to boards, commissions and the U.S. Senate were worth millions. And so they were. Edwards Hospital exposed the abuse of power and corruption at the Health Facilities Planning Board.
So, is every potential investment a shakedown opportunity? Is Illinois governed by threat, coercion, a union squeeze, a minority hold-up, a double-dip, a no-show job, a kick-back and a sweetheart deal? Does a successful investor have to employ the “right” law firm, the “right” lobbyist, the “right” consultant, take care of a family member or precinct worker, donate to the “right” charities and keep the campaign contributions flowing in order to accomplish legitimate business objectives?
In Springfield, the General Assembly has taken to approving laws governing business tax policy and the telecommunications industry with short-term termination dates. Not only does the approach undermine corporate investments for lack of stability and predictability associated with long-term planning, but the cynic knows the necessity of returning to the General Assembly for reauthorization insures contracts for lobbyists and fetches campaign contributions.
We regard Chicago as a world-class city. So, like Moscow, we acknowledge the existence of a mafia, but we elect ours. The taxpayers’ tolerance for high cost and inefficient government is matched only by donors’ willingness to pay for it and the voters perpetuating such political entertainment. It is a high price to pay.
However, Illinois business continues to do well despite the perpetual failings of our governments. The litany of governmental failings, scandal and corruption that we have endured as business minded people, employers, taxpayers and voters should not be dismissed as simply another story of the day.
There are still many reasons why Illinois is a good place to live and do business, but that is content for the future. Stay tuned.
Douglas L. Whitley is president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.