Illinois Senator Andy Manar (D-Staunton) hopes Gov. Pat Quinn will sign his bill to restructure the Illinois Dept. of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. The legislation will put a strategic development plan in place for the very first time, introduce an advisory board filled with business experts and establish measurable goals for the agency.
HB 1544 got the nod from both the Illinois Senate and the House and was sent to the governor on June 19, awaiting his signature. Manar, a Southwestern Illinois native, whose resume includes eight years as chairman of the Macoupin County Board and one term as mayor of his home town of Bunker Hill - says this legislation is the “first step” in attacking what is undoubtedly the root of all Illinois’ financial crises: an unacceptable level of unemployment.
“If we’re going to get at the heart of our state’s budget woes, we’ve got to get a grip on lowering unemployment,” said Manar, noting that although unemployment in Sangamon County overall is lower than the state average, unemployment in portions of the city of Springfield, Ill. are two and three times the state average. “Rural communities are especially struggling with generationally high unemployment,” he added. “This scenario not only applies to Macoupin and Sangamon counties, but to other counties across Illinois, too. That tells me that DCEO is disconnected and out of touch. This bill is intended to begin the process of dealing with this huge issue that’s at the root of it all.”
Manar praises DCEO’s new director, Adam Pollet, who was officially confirmed by the Senate on May 31. Pollet is the agency’s third director in approximately 3.5 years. Manar and Illinois Chamber of Commerce President Doug Whitley agree that Pollet, a Harvard Law School grad and former deputy director for the Illinois Office of Trade and Investment, is the right choice to lead DCEO’s reorganization from within.
“I think Adam’s intentions and his heart are in the right place,” said Whitley. “One of the major points we’ve been making (the Illinois Chamber) since we published our Jobs Agenda more than two years ago is that the Dept. of Commerce and Economic Opportunity had become too involved as a conduit for federal dollars and for energy efficiency and workforce development programs, and not involved enough in the most important issue facing Illinois: jobs creation. To me, HB 1544, our Jobs Agenda and other initiatives that have come forth are saying essentially the same thing: DCEO is not performing at the peak of its ability, and at the level that the public expects. We need to recalibrate this agency’s role, more closely monitor it and recommunicate its role. Right now we need a laser focus, and that laser focus needs to be on solving our state’s unemployment problems.”
HB 1544 does not include any change or reduction in the number of employees working for DCEO. It does require that DCEO develop and update the new strategic plan on an annual basis. Manar says the creation of the Illinois Business Development Council ensures private-sector involvement in the economic development functions of the agency, where competition is fierce between states to attract relocating and expanding business and industry to Illinois. HB 1544 also requires businesses receiving financial incentives from DCEO to report quarterly and annually specified data related to job creation.
It will be effective immediately once signed into law by Quinn. July 1, 2014 is the deadline by which the initial DCEO strategic development plan must be put into place, according to Manar.
“We will see Director Pollet begin to put the provisions in place soon,” Manar said. “Appointments to the Business Development Council, the beginning of soliciting local government and business input to the strategic development plan and more. It’s going to be vital for us to seek input from organizations in the Metro East such as the RiverBend Growth Association and other local entities who can provide valuable economic development perspective.”
Manar credits Quinn’s administration, DCEO, business leaders and others for their dialogue and work in reaching a consensus on the issues driving HB 1544 and the subject overall. A total of three public hearings were held - one in Alton - to solicit public input on the topic of creating measurable accountability in the agency.
“I’m not interested in talking about what’s wrong,” said Manar. “I want to talk about ways we can fix the problem. The core issue in this state is unemployment. DCEO is an agency that has been disconnected from this issue. This bill (HB 1544) refocuses the agency on the issue, and creates tools and resources to equip it and to hold it accountable in working toward achieving solutions to the problem. Once this bill becomes law, we’ve got everything we need to move forward.”