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Illinois needs a strong, two-party legislative system

As we look back on the political landscape of 2007 and attempt to make predictions for 2008, we see that matters have not substantially changed. The same cast of bickering characters is still in charge. The governor is still acting like a dictator without respect for the legislative branch. The state budget is still seriously out of balance. The media continues to pursue corruption trials and follow the money trail of clout-heavy campaign contributors.

If there is a silver lining for employers, it might well be that, in election years, the Illinois General Assembly has often shied away from adopting controversial or substantive legislation of consequence. Even so, the Chavez-like political threats are real and must be taken seriously.

Last year, the fire breathing dragon unleashed by the governor that scared every business person was the Gross Receipts Tax, commonly referred to by employers as the reviled "GRT." The business tax dragon was chased away, but it wasn't slain.

The governor is sure to conjure up new tax dragons as long as the state repeats the same fiscal sins. Annual state spending continues to exceed annual tax receipts. As long as the governor continues to demand that non-voting business entities assume sole responsibility for the cost of expanding state government programs, employers must anticipate that anti-business rhetoric and anti-competitive tax proposals will persist.

The emerging public policy debate that will claim a great deal of attention in the Statehouse this year will be climate change. Once again, the political solution for societal issues will be directed at imposing sanctions upon non-voting commercial and industrial entities.

The governor will undoubtedly continue to flaunt executive branch power by unilaterally expanding taxpayer-financed healthcare programs without regard for insufficient funds in the treasury. His blatant disregard for the appropriation process has teed up a genuine constitutional crisis over the legislature's authority to allocate the taxpayers' money.

This conflict over Constitutional powers may play out during the fall election when Illinois voters will consider a referendum on whether or not a new State Constitutional Convention should be convened. Only the opportunity to choose the country's next president will have more significance for the Illinois electorate when it enters the polling booth in November.

It is increasingly apparent that one-party rule in Illinois has disastrous consequences. The Republican Party could not run the state well in the 1980s when they held all offices; Democrats have shown us a more dysfunctional government than anyone could have anticipated since Rod Blagojevich was elected as a self-proclaimed "reformer." Even many Democrats are ashamed of his performance.

The overly partisan "one party takes all" re-apportionment foisted upon us a legislative body that is fundamentally unresponsive. Since the cutback amendment reducing the size of the Illinois House was adopted in 1980, legislative districts are gerrymandered in such a way as to ensure safe seats for incumbents. Only a handful of districts are truly competitive. In many districts, the odds of being elected as a minority party candidate are so overwhelming, the opposition party fails to enlist anyone to even seek the office.

Sadly, the legislative process is severely broken. As political power is concentrated into the hands of a few, influences of individual legislators are marginalized. This is best illustrated by the way legislative committees have increasingly rushed decision making, shortened debate, resisted and silenced input from opponents, and generally stifled any reasonable length of time for public awareness or discourse when critical, complicated public policy dialog should be encouraged and undertaken. Case in point: what should be a lengthy public and deliberative appropriations process is circumvented by a multi-billion dollar omnibus budget bill negotiated behind closed doors, presented as a done deal and adopted in a matter of hours at the close of the legislative session with total disregard for an open process. Spending cannot be restrained when the budget is handled this way.

What Illinois desperately needs in 2008, an election year, is a stronger two-party system that appeals to and engages the disillusioned, disenfranchised and non-registered citizens who are increasingly choosing to sit out elections in our state. In 2006, two-thirds of all registered voters chose not to vote for either the Democratic or the Republican candidates for governor.

Ironically, public policy issues affecting Illinois' future are as compelling in 2008 as they've ever been. The state's budget is woefully out of balance. The cost of doing business has become a hugely competitive issue. Affordable healthcare issues affect individuals and employers alike. Quality education outcomes and availability of a skilled workforce are important to keeping Illinois' economy competitive on a global scale. The state's insufficient investment in infrastructure and transportation systems is begging for attention. The increasing burden of property taxes is problematic for many homeowners. Escalating higher education tuition has become a barrier to upward mobility and economic opportunity for the masses.

This is a good year to start taking greater interest in the governments you are asked to fund. If you are not getting what you want, expect and deserve, perhaps it is time to do something more.

- Doug Whitley is president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at (312) 983-7100 or dwhitley@ilchamber.org.

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