Can change happen in Illinois? Five out-of-state legislators point the way

May 11, 2013


 How to rescue Illinois from being the worst state to the top tier of states in the nation seems to be an overwhelming and an almost impossible Herculean task to accomplish, given the political and financial issues which plague this state, but it can be done.

Such was tenor of the event sponsored by the Illinois Policy Institute, Reform: This way – Lessons from states that got it right, as five courageous leaders who championed bold changes in their own states were assembled at the Roiling Green Country Club in Arlington Heights on Tuesday evening, May 7th.  The event was moderated by WLS-AM radio host Dan Proft.

Each of the five panel members revealed the stories behind the strategic decisions made in each of their states on issues common to all, which resulted in transformative policy changes through which other states were emboldened to adopt the same strategies.


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Listed below are panel members and the issues upon which each took courageous actions to effect positive change in their states.  Might they also work here in Illinois?:

  • Michigan state Sen. Patrick Colbeck – Right to Work
  • Indiana state Rep. Robert Behning – school choice
  • Former Utah state Sen. Dan Liljenquist – pension reform
  • Former Wisconsin Assemblywoman Michelle Litjens – budget reform
  • Opportunity Ohio President Matt Mayer – competitive federalism

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Photos by Nancy Thorner


First up was Indiana state Sen. Robert Behning speaking about school choice.   As a prelude to Behning’s remarks, a short video was shown that displayed how children from a poor family in Merriville, Indiana, thrived when given a chance to exit from a failing public school. An initial question was proposed by moderator Dan Proft as to how Behning managed to get the different school choice entities to the same place?  The solution:  All worked together and made sure that whether school choice related to charter schools or school vouchers, Indiana would become a leader in eduction reform. Parents would further know that in both charter schools and in a voucher system neither zip codes or income disparages would make a difference in the type of education a child would receive. Competition as being a positive for education was explained using the auto industry as an example.  When auto imports became a established in this nation, all makers produced better cars than they had during the ten prior years, spurred on by a need to sell cars to consumers.

Next up was Michigan state Sen. Patrick Colbeck with his Right to Work story.  As a newly elected senator, Sen.Colbeck’s  #1 priority was to bring his 20 years of problem-solving experience to state government.  He prides himself on being a problem solver, not a politician. In his first year Sen. Colbeck led the passage of Right-To-Work legislation in the Senate to stop the exodus of jobs and people from Michigan that had occurred over the past decade and to encourage job growth.  Colbeck sold his “bill of goods” by changing “Right to Work” to “Freedom to Work.”  Freedom to Work resonated with rank and file union members, important for the positive reception of his message.  Then too, groups such as tea party conservatives throughout Michigan were able to outnumber the other side in their communications with the public.  Colbeck applauded two committed freshmen legislators for contributing in his success.  Both ran for office with the passage of Labor Freedom on their agenda.  Cobeck noted how companies when wishing to locate often ask if a state is a Right to Work state.  Right to Work states include South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Wisconsin, and Indiana.


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Former Utah state Sen. Dan Liljenquist spoke about pension reform.  Senator Liljenquist spoke of the fear that is manufactured about the inability of people to manage their own money, with the stock market being the riskiest of all.  What gave the impetus for reform and got everyone’s attention, as a non-partisan issue, was what happened in Utah in 2008.  Utah had to focus on reality, and reality is not negotiable.  A one year’s market loss led to a 10% loss in Utah’s General Fund.  Resolved was that such a financial loss could not be permitted to happen again.  Unions did not accept the idea of going to 401 K accounts. Spurred on and encouraged by Union leaders, union members got up in arms to protest. To quell the unrest Sen. Liljenquist wrote individuals letters to each protester thanking them for their service and what they did for their state, reminding them that what happened in 2008 could never be allowed to happen again and that changes had to be made. Liljenquist’s writing campaign separated good union members from union bosses with the result that in 2010 pension reform drove voters to the Republican Party.  Results of the reform:  Money was saved beyond wildest dreams and retiree pension commitments could be met.  Utah is #1 in financial management, while Illinois is #48.

The only woman on the panel, former Wisconsin Assemblywoman Michelle Litjens, highlighted Wisconsin’s contentious budget reform.  Although Assemblywoman Michelle Litjens served for only two years, electing not to run for re-election because she had children in high school, and further realized that she had managed to make a difference in her two years, was an arch supporter of Governor Scott Walker and as such was in the eye of the storm.  When elected to office in 2010 it was her goal to fix things.  In 2009 Democratic control had run the debt up to $3.6 billion.  Binding educational laws had to be changed.  Two billion dollars was saved by having teachers teach seven hours a day instead of only five.  Another change was that the most recent hire did not have to be laid off.  Still another change was that teachers would now have to pay some of their own health insurance and pension costs instead of the Wisconsin paying all.  At one time there were as many as 100,000 protestors outside and inside the Capitol building in Wisconsin, requiring that the staff wear jeans and plaid shirt to get inside to blend with the protestors.  But they did it, they succeeded, by keeping the mission focused.  Litjens did admit that the legislators should have done a better job of selling what they had to do up front.  It was also advantageous that Gov. Walker’s recall election took place one year and two months after success was had at the political level with budget reform. Assemblywoman Liljenquist likewise wrote letters to protesters, as did former Utah state Sen. Dan Liljenquist in dealing with his state’s pension reform.

The final panelist was Opportunity Ohio President Matt Mayer who discussed competitive federalism.  Besides being President at Opportunity Ohio, a free market think tank in Dublin, Ohio, Matt Mayer also speaks on national security issues as a visiting fellow at Heritage where he heads a project evaluating how each state has met the modern threat of terrorism.  Mr. Mayer second book, “Taxpayers Don’t Stand a Chance: Why Battleground Ohio Loses No Matter Who Wins (and What To Do About it), is an in-depth case study on the perennial election battleground state of Ohio, including a microanalysis of Ohio’s political landscape.  Stressed by Matt Mayer is that competition is what made America great.  If a state refuses to reform, it loses any competitive edge it may have had to a neighboring state.  Mayer believes states should serve as laboratories of competition, with competition happening on a large range of activities.  Mayer expressed a belief in Illinois, that Illinois can win again instead of being last where it should be first and first where it should be last.  Grassroots efforts are essential in effecting change.  Regarding Ohio, the state was unable to pass Right to Work, even with Republican governor John Kasich, because, unlike Wisconsin, Ohio foolishly included the police and firemen in its budget reform legislation.

A short question and answer period followed.  One question dealt with “What needs to changed first in Illinois before policy can change — Culture or Policy?  Some remarks included:  Policy alone can’t effect change.  We can’t be all mind and very little heart.  We must do a better job at story telling to get our message out.  We must sell the benefits are well as the product, i.e., such as the difference a charter school can make in the life of a child. Grass roots efforts and social media rank high in getting messages out that are not in step with the mainstream media.  Humans benefit from good policy, while they suffer when bad policy is enacted.

Johnathon Greenberg, Vice President of External Relations at the Illinois Policy Institute, gave the closing remarks.  Greenberg called the free enterprise system the greatest force in human history.  Noted was how change will only happen in Illinois when things become dark enough so change can no longer be avoided and when there are those in Illinois who have the courage to lead.

What CEO’s are saying about Illinois can be found at

Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 08:29 AM | Permalink



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