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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2005 05:43 pm

What we need from Jim Edgar

Come back with a progressive reform agenda — or don’t bother.

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Here’s an idea: Instead of reluctantly agreeing to run for governor as a means of rescuing the Republican Party and then trying to survive four years without damaging his good reputation, how about if Jim Edgar gets back into politics with enthusiasm, determined to make life better in Illinois? Edgar is the one potential gubernatorial candidate who has accumulated enough political capital to achieve real reform if he were to choose to use his considerable reputation to improve education and health care. He knows how to get things done, and he knows what needs to be done.

There is no indication, of course, that Edgar has anything like this in mind. He has rarely spoken out on issues since leaving office. There is little recent precedent for anyone to run for office in Illinois to accomplish lasting change, so it may not have occurred to him. Most likely, the reason Edgar is toying with a comeback bid is that early retirement is getting boring, or he wants to prove to himself that he can still win.

But it could be that Edgar is bothered by the fact that although everyone remembers that he was a pretty good governor — especially compared with those who followed him into that office — nobody can remember anything he did. The Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Conservation Area, northwest of Springfield, is the only thing I know with his name on it. Edgar was an honest caretaker. But if he wants a lasting legacy, he needs another shot.

During a panel discussion earlier this year, Mike Lawrence — Edgar’s former top aide, now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute — had this to say about the current governor: “Will the governor and lawmakers become statesmen who safeguard Illinois’ future even if it means jeopardizing their own, or will they repeat the sins of the past that helped create this mess?” Lawrence elaborated in a March newspaper column. Politicians, he wrote, “must concede we need higher state taxes to end our undue reliance on local property taxes and provide the additional $1.5 billion required to adequately support students in impoverished districts. If they are afraid to boost our taxes, they should quit portraying themselves as reform-committed.” I hope that Edgar is listening to his former staffer, who has grown wise over the years.

Edgar knows this issue. In the mid-1990s, he embraced school funding reform and came close to passing it, only to be blocked by the Senate president, a Republican. The current Senate president, Emil Jones, calls the current school funding system “outrageous” and wants to overhaul it. He would make a formidable ally for a progressive, reform-minded governor, were Edgar to step up to that plate again.

The need for a tax increase and tax reform goes well beyond education. Health care needs grow faster than the state’s ability to keep up with them. Illinois hospitals and nursing homes suffer from some of the lowest Medicaid reimbursement rates in the nation. And there is nothing left to help the 2 million Illinoisans who have no health insurance. Affordable housing, neglected children, and environmental protection get scant attention in a perpetually cash-strapped Illinois.

Groundwork has been laid. The bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability has spent the past two years educating Illinoisans about the inadequacy of the state’s flat-rate income tax, which forces too much reliance on the local property tax. Its proposal for an income tax increase, with tax credits for low-income residents, along with property tax rebates, is gathering support.

What it needs is a champion. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has made it clear that he opposes anything resembling a tax increase, even if it makes the tax system fairer. As long as he has the veto power, tax reform isn’t going anywhere. He has staked out ground that has traditionally belonged to Republicans, and any candidate, including Edgar, who tries to out-conservative him is likely to fail.

It might be risky for Edgar to step away from the no-tax-increase crowd and start talking about what Illinois really needs. But he’s already been governor and his good reputation is established, so why doesn’t he take a risk and show some courage? If Jim Edgar were to enter the campaign as a progressive reform candidate, he could not only hold on to the thinking Republicans but earn the support of many Democrats as well. If he’s not going to do anything, he should stay home and enjoy his relaxed retirement. But if he has any fire left in his belly, Illinois needs him back.

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