This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 29, 2010 - In a state with as gaping a budget hole as Illinois has, there is really only one issue in the November election -- or 13 billion of them, depending on how you look at it.
That's the size of the budget deficit that faces whoever is elected to run the state. And worry over how to solve the $13 billion budget puzzle in the midst of a recession is sucking up most of the electoral oxygen in the campaign. Any remaining air is being used to fuel speculation about who will become the next mayor of Chicago following the planned retirement of long-time Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Speculation about the mayoral race "is really taking the spotlight off of the November elections," said Laura Washington, a long-time political observer who writes a column for the Chicago Sun-Times. "I heard [former Illinois Comptroller] Dawn Clark Netsch say the other day that we should be paying attention to November, not February. What happens in November will have a huge impact on Chicago."
But even an onslaught of negative political ads -- or questions about whether a staunchly conservative anti-abortion Republican can win statewide office in the state that sent Barack Obama to Washington and then on to the White House -- is having little impact on an electorate more concerned about whether their unemployment checks will continue.
It adds up to a very tough time to be advocating for new policies, even those that might save the state money over the long run.
"The paucity of real debate about real public policy issues adds to the struggle to get attention for the things that matter," said Frank Beal, executive director of Metropolis 2020, a think tank that publishes policy papers on a variety of issues, including transportation, education, housing and criminal justice.
That's a big problem, he said, because "somebody is going to get elected and have to govern."
Coverage of the campaign may not be focusing on the state's problems, but the problems are there and they're growing. Among the issues facing the next governor:
This is the issue most closely tied to the state's budget woes. Democrat Pat Quinn has called for higher taxes to close the budget gap, a tough sell in a state where the unemployment rate has been 10 percent or more since June 2009. His rival, Republican Bill Brady promises to solve the budget crisis by cutting state government. That is an equally scary prospect to formerly middle class residents who worry he will dismantle the social safety net just as they need to rely on it, many for the first time in their lives.
The Reason Foundation's Annual Highway Report places Illinois' highway system at 40th on a national ranking, down four spots from the previous year. The state's lowest rankings were in capital and bridge spending (45th) and total spending (42nd).
Meanwhile, Beal at Metropolis 2020 notes that the state needs a more comprehensive approach to transportation planning. The Illinois Transportation Department "still operates as a highway department. Where's the transportation plan for tourism? Or freight?"
With the exception of early childhood education for 3-year-olds, in which Illinois is a national leader, the state's performance on public education rarely gets a passing grade. Just 78 percent of students overall graduate high school, and the American Legislative Exchange Council's report on education policies in the 50 states and the District of Columbia gave Illinois a C overall. But the state got D's for state academic standards (which have been lowered) and identifying and retaining the best teachers. The only A? For Illinois homeschooling policies.
This is a perennial favorite in Illinois, where three former governors ended up in jail and a fourth, Rod Blagojevich, is facing retrial on his federal corruption charges after a summer trial resulted in one conviction for lying to the FBI and a hung jury on 23 other charges. When Change Illinois, a coalition of groups pushing for changes to the system of redistricting and other ethics reforms, asked the candidates 20 questions about election rules and campaign financing, Quinn and Brady both signaled their support for a wide range of changes. The biggest difference between them: Quinn said he supports public financing on political campaigns and Brady doesn't.
But none of those issues will get a full hearing in this campaign so long as the budget and economic crises continue to grab the headlines.
As Cindi Canary, a long-time advocate for campaign finance reform in Illinois and a member of the statewide coalition, said, "Whether we're in the Tea Party or liberal activists, every issue we care about is wrapped up in the budget.
"Suddenly, we have something in common."
Cindy Richards, a freelance writer in Chicago, has long covered Illinois politics.