001010813br0213edCrIllinois is facing some tough budget challenges. But as the saying goes, every challenge is an opportunity in disguise. We should seize this opportunity to root out waste, inefficient spending and create greater efficiency through reform.

One of the areas of state government most in need of increased accountability and reform is the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO). The core mission of the agency is to create and retain jobs and foster economic development in Illinois.  It oversees more than 65 state and federal grant programs and maintains offices in 10 foreign countries.  It has an operating budget of $1.7 billion.

To be sure, many DCEO programs have had a measureable impact on our economy, creating jobs and retaining businesses in Illinois.  There is little question that the agency’s mission is worthwhile and important to our economy.

But where DCEO falls critically short is accountability and planning.  One major newspaper editorial characterized the agency as the place to go for a blank check from taxpayers—a blank check, I might add, that has overwhelmingly supported programs in areas with lower unemployment.  There is no direct correlation between spending and how that spending ties into a strategic plan.  With no plan, there is no benchmark to measure success or failure.  This lack of accountability has led to 11 federal subpoenas over the last three years.  

A track record like this would be alarming during times when our state’s budget is flush.  Amid our current budgetary crisis, it’s horrifying.  Clearly something needs to change.

I faced a similar situation as chairman of the Macoupin County Board when our county-run economic development office no longer effectively served the needs of our community. We shut down the office and reinvested those resources in an innovative, more collaborative program that brought local business leaders in as decision makers and gave them a role in developing and executing a strategic plan.   

This public-private partnership pairs their valuable private sector perspective with the resources of government with proper oversight. Through this collaboration, we were able to achieve a broader, more regional view of economic development—one that doesn’t focus solely on recruiting or keeping only a few major employers, and instead emphasizes development of the small businesses that are the backbone of local economies.

Through this reform and increased involvement from the private sector, the Macoupin Economic Development Partnership is now making smarter, more efficient investments to better grow the local economy.

My goal during the spring session was to bring similar reforms to DCEO because I believe the approach we used in Macoupin County can work for Illinois.

After months of negotiations and gathering input from business and community leaders from across the state, I passed bipartisan legislation that will change Illinois’ approach to economic development. The measure I sponsored will require DCEO to consult with business and local economic development organizations.  It will also require DCEO to develop an annual economic development plan and submit that plan to the governor and the General Assembly.  

There are areas in Central and Southern Illinois that have been struggling with continual high unemployment, and I believe DCEO needs to place greater priority on assisting these areas with economic development. Having a plan will help focus state resources on where they are needed most, maximizing job creation and impact on our economy as well as leading to increased oversight and accountability.  In order to tackle Illinois’ stagnant unemployment, we must do more in communities with unemployment that has consistently been higher than state and national averages—sometimes higher for over a generation.

This legislation will also create the Business Development Council, a 12-member board consisting of private sector leaders representing small businesses, the coal, health care and agriculture industries as well as representatives from local economic development entities and private sector organized labor. The Business Development Council will be tasked with developing a business development plan to solicit new companies to relocate to Illinois as well as expand existing businesses.

This approach creates an appropriate way for the private sector to have direct involvement in economic development in Illinois.  It’s a first step.  The result is a broader strategic vision, informed by the private sector, not just Springfield bureaucrats. With this type of direct line to the needs of the private sector, our state investments will be smarter and more efficient.

In a time where every dollar counts and some communities in Illinois continue to struggle, reform is needed.  I believe the evidence, as well as simple common sense, tells us that better planning and more input from the private sector is the best way forward to spur economic development in Illinois.

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