Jamey Dunn is leaving the position of Illinois Issues editor. In this report, she reflects on her time working here and covering state government. She now works as deputy director of communications for Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza next week.
My first week on the job in the Statehouse as an intern for Illinois Issues, the House voted to impeach then Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Just a few months earlier, the national economy had collapsed. The nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, would take office in a couple of weeks, after having served in that very building as a state senator four years prior.
It felt like almost anything — good and bad — was possible at that time.
Here in Illinois, Blagojevich was removed from office and eventually sent to prison. Lawmakers approved, and Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law the first capital plan Illinois had seen in a decade. But leaders also faced a projected budget deficit that was far worse than Blagojevich had let on publicly. At one point, it was pegged at nearly $13 billion.
A few months after my internship ended, I came back to Illinois Issues as Statehouse bureau chief. In the seven or so years I have worked here since, some big policy changes made their way through the legislative process.
Personal and corporate income tax rates were temporarily increased. The death penalty was outlawed. Same sex marriage was legalized. Pension benefits for new state employees hired after 2011 were scaled back substantially. After a court ruled that the state must allow citizens to carry firearms, comprehensive concealed carry regulations were put into place. A medical marijuana pilot program was created and has since been extended. All of those measures, except for the tax increase, passed with bipartisan support.
The state also pledged, through consent decrees or other agreements, to improve the care and education of children in the juvenile justice system, to offer people with developmental disabilities or mental illness care in their communities and to improve mental health care for offenders in the state’s correctional system.
Of course not all these moves proved to be entirely successful. For instance, a recent investigative series from the Chicago Tribune laid out the heartbreaking consequences of transitioning some adults with disabilities into community settings hastily and without enough funding. The rollback of the temporary income tax rates contributed to a serious budget shortfall, which has become a full-blown disaster after lawmakers and the governor have failed to address it for a fiscal year and a half.
But having a front row seat as this laundry list of policy changes was mulled over, opposed, advocated for and voted on (in some cases many times) throughout the process has given me some perspective. The more I have watched the sausage being made, the more I realized how difficult it can be to make it — and how it is often a wonder it even gets made at all.
There are so many stakeholders and perspectives to consider. So many potential unintended consequences to attempt to predict. So many constituencies and interests to please, or at least appease. And, yes, the next election to consider. It is politics, after all.
One of the biggest lessons I learned while watching the loud and messy sausage factory that is Illinois state government, is that no one person or point of view should get to determine all the ingredients.
I may sometimes think I know the best prescription for a given public policy problem. But I now know there’s a good chance I’m off, at least about some facet of it. Most issues are just too complex for one person to have all the answers when it comes time to actually put a policy in place.
Or I may feel in my heart something is the right thing to do, but that doesn’t make it good policy for my state or my neighbor to live under. What we want, believe or feel as individuals is not always what’s workable. But that’s ok. Having an opinion — even an informed and well-thought-out one — and making a law are two very different things. Having the chance to understand that from up-close observation is a takeaway from this job that I will forever be grateful for.
On the subject of gratitude, there are a few other things from this job I’m thankful for. Chief among them is getting the chance to work with the NPR Illinois staff and alongside the Illinois Statehouse press corps. They are some of the most interesting, curious and gracious people I have met.
I will miss talking with sources on topics they are truly passionate about and know inside and out and working with University of Illinois students and Public Affairs Reporting interns each year. I am also thankful for the willingness of readers like you to give your time to in-depth stories so you can — hopefully, if we’re doing our jobs — better understand our state.
Illinois Issues has been through some big changes in the past few years as well. In 2014, Illinois Issues merged with the public radio affiliate station on the University of Illinois campus — then known as WUIS, now called NPR Illinois. We started producing radio segments to go along with our in-depth stories, essays and analysis. Now Illinois Issues reaches a whole new audience, not just through NPR Illinois, but also on public radio stations throughout the state.
In 2015, Illinois Issues eliminated its print edition and went to a digital-only format. Now an in-depth piece is published each Thursday and readers can get Illinois Issues in their email inboxes by subscribing to our newsletter. Letting go of the print publication was hard for all of our staff, but most of our stories now draw more readers online than the print magazine had subscribers. And in the two years since the merger, NPR Illinois web traffic doubled in the first year and nearly doubled in the second. Illinois Issues was a crucial part of those increases.
Before I started working at Illinois Issues, the state’s government was mired in gridlock as the General Assembly and the governor were not able to work together. As I am leaving, stagnation is again the dominant theme in Illinois. Recent events, including the state going without a budget for so long and the country electing a former reality television star as its president, have that “almost anything can happen” feeling back in full swing. However, bipartisan budget talks happening in the Illinois Senate do bring a glimmer of hope that some semblance of normalcy might possibly return in Illinois.
Some sectors of the economy have made strides toward recovery since the 2008 crash. But the dissatisfaction and economic inequity triggered by the national economic collapse — or perhaps only highlighted and exacerbated by it, depending on your perspective — echoed through both of Obama’s terms to become the central theme of the 2016 presidential election.
Through whatever comes next, it is my hope that Illinois Issues will continue to break down the topics up for debate in an in-depth and even-handed manner. If you’re a longtime reader, thanks for sticking with us through all the changes in the past few years. I hope some of them have made keeping up with Illinois Issues’ stories more convenient. If you’re newer to Illinois Issues, I hope you have found something useful in what you have read and heard in our reports.
I encourage you to continue to support Illinois Issues — keep reading and keep listening. Whatever happens in the coming years, we’ll continue to need news that takes its time to get the facts right and fit the events of the day into the context of the overall story of our state. In this era of fake news and Facebook, short tweets and disposable communications on Snapchat, taking time to read an in-depth story — which you know writers and editors took their time to produce — is a refreshing and informative act of civil engagement.