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Southern Illinois faces ‘perfect storm’

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You can make a case these are the hardest times in Southern Illinois since the Great Depression. An unprecedented number of bad things are hitting us all at once.

It means we’re going to have to do things differently to have a better future.

Consider these realities:

 The world economy. The financial crisis in Europe isn’t over and it impacts us. For example, Europeans don’t buy so many of our goods. We’ve seen how troubles in a little economy like Greece can trash the U.S. stock market on any given day. As we’ve learned in two world wars, the troubles of Europe have a way of becoming our troubles, too.

 Drought. The drought in the region is one of the worst in 50 years.

 Coal. The coal industry, once an underpinning of the Southern Illinois economy, is undergoing a rapid, fundamental and perhaps permanent decline. A new technology called “fracking” is enabling more natural gas to be extracted. This increases supplies of natural gas, drops its price and makes coal uncompetitive.

 Government deficits and debt. Both the federal and state governments face dire financial circumstances not seen since the 1930s. Illinois’ financial condition is among the worst of all the states. Since we’ve been consuming government services with borrowed money, in the years ahead we will get fewer government services and still be asked to pay more in taxes to cover the back due bills.

 Prison closings. A recent example of how the state’s financial troubles hammer our region is the closure of area correctional facilities. Has there ever been a time since the 1930s when the state eliminated so many correctional facilities in one swoop?

 Medicaid trims. The health care program for the poor is also being cut. Since ours is a region with many low-income people — particularly seniors and children — these changes to Medicaid will take a human toll on Southern Illinois as they start to take effect.

 Cuts to education. SIU, community colleges and K-12 schools have all felt the sting of budget cuts. More are coming. They come at a time when getting people better educations is probably one way the region could help itself by improving the skills of workers.

 Other cuts. Did I mention parks? We are home to some of the most beautiful places on earth yet our ability to maintain public access to them is diminishing. Anything getting state or federal money faces, or soon will face, having to make cuts.

 Pension and health benefit cuts. Southern Illinois is home to a number of government retirees. They are teachers, professors, highway workers, correctional employees and others. Because the state is in such poor financial shape, health care benefits will soon cost them more and pension benefits may be reduced. One of the effects of these looming cuts has triggered an unprecedented number of retirements by public employees. While retirements like these may reduce costs to taxpayers, it also means diminished public services, since many of these jobs won’t be filled. Since retirement benefits are smaller than full-time paychecks, there will be less money being spent in the local economy. That assumes retirees all stay here, and many won’t.

Any one of these things would hit a region hard and we’ve seen many of them before. Yet some are new and the combination of them at the same time is a devastating “perfect storm” bearing down on us.

I hate to say that. Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news. Bad news can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy by causing us to hunker down, not spend money or be depressed. Still, it needs to be said. The first step in correcting a problem is not being Pollyanna-like about it. It means facing reality and taking a look in the mirror.

The second thing in fixing a problem is doing things differently. The question before Southern Illinois now is simple: “Whatever we’ve done in the past has been well-intended but it hasn’t been enough. So what are we going to do differently now to turn the bad news into good?”

DAVID YEPSEN is the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at SIU Carbondale.

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