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Chicagoland Thu Oct 08 2009

Chicago Metro 2020 Briefing Calls for Big Picture Answers

I had the pleasure yesterday, in between e-mail and a client meeting, to take in the 7th Annual lunchtime media briefing by Chicago Metropolis 2020. CM2020 is a non-profit organization originally established by the Commercial Club of Chicago "to promote long-term planning, better regional cooperation, and smart investments in the Chicago region and its people." The briefing, attended by a number of notables on the Chicago journalism scene, promised presentations on criminal justice reform; campaign finance limits; housing policy, early childhood education, and the Burnham Plan Centennial.

Adele Simmons, VP of the Burnham Plan Centennial, combined a general welcome with an overview of the mission of the Centennial, which is to carry on the legacy of legendary planner Daniel Burnham by focusing on innovative regional solutions for the Chicago metro area, saying, "The choices we make today will shape the future." While that statement might seem tautological at first, the emphasis was on bringing to the forefront of our decisionmaking the long-range, rather than short-term drivers.

That kind of thinking was reiterated in the presentation by King Harris, a senior executive at CM2020. Harris derided the failure of municipalities to build affordable housing, and noted that this organization had been warning about dangerous mortgage products over four years ago, long before the meltdown in the mortgage market played a large factor in worldwide recession.

Harris warned that 7 million new foreclosures were pending, and that government needed to enact the "cram-down" provisions bitterly opposed by the financial services sector, else those foreclosures would wreak further devastation on the already-battered housing market. The "second wave" of foreclosures has been a quiet item for months that has been visible to the observant but largely ignored while the market climbed back from its March valley.

The discussion then turned to the Illinois economy. Illinois, it was warned, is "slipping" because "we really have no economic development policy in place." In particular, transportation policy was singled out as "uncoordinated, unfocused, and not contributing to the economy," largely because investment in transportation takes place as if Illinois were still a "19th century agrarian state."

A better policy, CM2020 feels, would alter the funding formula for transportation, implement a rail plan that includes a mechanism to adjudicate conflicts between freight lines (and between freight and passenger trains), apportion transportation capital funding as an investment rather than legislative earmarks, and, as some (including myself) have argued, implement a gas tax as in Illinois's self-interest. An interesting new argument made was that, because Illinois is not an oil producing or refining state, motorists buying gasoline in effect sends dollars out of Illinois, to Texas and Saudi Arabia, that otherwise might stay in our economy.

Paula Wolff, a CM2020 exec and longtime mover in both Illinois government and the not-for-profit scene, who has recently been appointed by Gov. Quinn to head the tollway authority, then discussed the organization's criminal justice recommendations. This has been one of the organization's areas of intense focus and has produced a number of thoughtful and provocative reports, as well as contributing to the passage in the 96th General Assembly of SB 1289, the Illinois Crime Reduction Act. The reports are chock-full of strategies for reducing both crime and the prison population, ranging from strategic [non-prison] corrections to intervention at early stages in the criminal justice process in order to discriminate between high-risk and low-risk candidates for recidivism or rehabilitation. The political challenge is to frame these diversionary strategies as being "smart on crime" rather than "soft on crime."

There is interplay between later-in-life involvement in crime and what happens in early childhood. Both physical damage to the brain and development of reasoning and social skills can have long-lasting impact on the later socialization of a child. This is yet another respect, aside and apart from educational costs, in which early childhood education is an investment that reaps dividends for society.

Finally, George Ranney, the head of the organization, summed up the ongoing need for true ethics reform. Notwithstanding the skepticism of some in the room as to the efficacy of campaign contribution limits, Ranney said that the "state cannot govern itself effectively without adopting some standards of campaign finance," starting with controls on "the money coming in" instead of the no-limits, Wild-West-type regime now in place. Ranney explained the mysterious-to-some press conference a month ago at which the Governor, the Senate President, and the Speaker of the House all celebrated a veto of a bill they had all contributed to. He was hopeful of passage of a stronger reform bill, and gave some broad previews of new proposals about to be rolled out for consideration by the General Assembly in the veto session. While acknowledging that a better bill might not happen, he intimated that those who kill it would be visible, and potentially held accountable by voters.

Big-picture planning, smarter funding for transportation, a commitment to affordable housing on both humane and smart grounds, investment in young children's development, less reliance on a culture of incarceration, and a re-dedication to campaign finance reform are all solutions on which I'm already sold, so I played the choir to most of the sermon. What impact the briefing had on the media in attendance, I couldn't say; there was more referral to websites than actual paper put in our hands, and my experience is that the transfer rate from print to web is small. However, the talks themselves were stimulating, and every seed planted has a chance of bearing fruit. Chicago Metropolis 2020 brings together a lot of good minds to tackle problems that need our attention today, not later, and the work product is worthy reading for both professional policymakers and armchair policy wonks. For more information, contact

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