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Commentary: Doors - copper or not - closing on opportunity in Illinois

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 10, 2013 - Many taxpayers have focused in recent weeks on the copper-plated doors newly installed at the Capitol. Critics rap them as exorbitant; preservationists and architects deem them appropriate for the grand, historic building and stress they should last for at least 30 years.

But what about barred doors that restrict opportunity and could diminish the Land of Lincoln during those decades? Mettle, not metal, should command our interest and energy.

We need to go back for our future.

Back to providing vital assistance to most, if not all, financially challenged youths who have earned the chance to achieve a college degree. Back to surging momentum in early childhood education. Back to having existing and prospective businesses beckoned by sunshine unobstructed by menacing clouds of frightening government deficits. Back to having a broadly based panel of Illinoisans delve into how the state raises and spends tax dollars, then provide guidance and some political cover for tough decisions.

We should use those markers as guideposts to redirect, rescue and revive a state drifting into backwater. They embody a vision eclipsing the next election.

Do we continue to spurn half of those who qualify for need-based scholarships? This year, higher education officials estimate 178,500 turndowns based on insufficient funding. Little more than a decade ago, almost every eligible applicant received assistance covering the bulk of tuition and fees at a public university. Since then, we have experienced substantial weakening of the state's resolve to help youths and non-traditional students with little or modest income at their disposal attain degrees without mountainous debt.

We cannot fail to make college affordable for disadvantaged youths who have cleared seemingly insurmountable hurdles. We must help them reach for their best even in these worst of fiscal times.

Likewise, we must regain the momentum that took us to the zenith of states in providing early childhood education. Voices for Illinois Children reports participation in state-funded, pre-kindergarten programs dropped to 80,000  from 95,100  during the past four years after a 10-year surge. Illinois should be accelerating instead of braking its efforts to nurture the brains as well as the bodies of at-risk children from birth. Allowing innocents to fall behind and never close the gap defies humaneness and pragmatism; it cheats them and us of their potential and productivity.

At another such moment, less dire but still urgent, Democratic and Republican leaders, liberals and conservatives, agents of business and organized labor, as well as scholars in various areas, earnestly studied the state's revenue and spending patterns in the midst of the 1968 gubernatorial campaign with the mission of recommending reforms to the victor. The group was led by Simeon E. Leland, a government finance expert who had served as board chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. It was established by Gov. Samuel H. Shapiro, who was battling against contender Richard B. Ogilvie. Citing the work-in-progress of the Leland committee, Shapiro, Ogilvie and many legislative candidates finessed budgetary issues during their campaigns rather than make irresponsible promises.

Now, nearly a half-century later, the times suggest a sequel -- another high-powered, diverse panel to guide the governor and lawmakers we elect in 2014. The group should have an even more ambitious agenda that addresses our monumental fiscal and societal challenges in the context of enhancing our education and economic viability well into this century.

Public policy institutes at our state universities should consider partnering among themselves and with others to spearhead this worthy, if daunting, endeavor. The past tells us what we can do. The future summons us to do it.

Mike Lawrence is a regular contributor to the Beacon.

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