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Illinois has a long, storied history full of colorful characters, inspirational leaders and world-changing events.

But what kind of a future does it have after decades of failed leadership and dismal policy decisions by politicians and other power brokers more interested in enriching themselves than in continuing our state's powerful legacy?

That's a question taxpayers should be asking as the commemoration of Illinois' 200th year of statehood winds down.

During the course of 2018, Illinoisans were reminded of our amazing past through a series of bicentennial events and marketing campaigns, including online polling that allowed state residents to vote on the state's top 200 people, places, moments and other things in a variety of categories.

Voters chose three U.S. presidents as Illinois' top leaders, starting with Abraham Lincoln and followed by Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.

Lincoln's assassination and his historic fight to end slavery were chosen as the state's top moments.

Lydia Moss Bradley, Betty Friedan and Jane Addams are among the state's top groundbreaking women; Ernest Hemingway, Carl Sandburg, Ray Bradbury and Gwendolyn Brooks its top writers; Frank Lloyd Wright and Lorado Taft its top artists and architects.

A complete list can be found at Illinois200.com.

As the yearlong celebration of our past winds down, we must now focus on securing our future.

That's going to take a lot of determination and hard work, because Illinois' more recent past is filled with miscreants and misfits in power and countless broken promises to the citizens of our beleaguered state.

Taxpayers here shoulder among the highest combined local and state tax burdens in the nation. Despite this, we have annual budget deficits in the billions of dollars because state government can't keep spending under control. Government treats Illinoisans like ATMs.

Illinois has the worst-funded public pension systems in the country, with conservative estimates placing our pension debt at more than $130 billion.

National credit ratings agencies have placed Illinois' general obligation bond rating at just one notch above junk status, again worst in the nation. This means taxpayers here pay higher interest rates on public debt. Think of that this way: We simply pay more for our mistakes.

Four of Illinois' last eight governors were sent to prison for corruption, which exists in all levels of government across the state.

When the FBI raids the office of someone like longtime Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, nobody's particularly surprised.

Frustrated and overtaxed Illinoisans are fleeing the state by the tens of thousands annually, looking for better livelihoods elsewhere and leaving fewer taxpayers behind to bear the state's debt burden.

Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker will take office next month with steep challenges and little margin for error. He must have the will to reform the state's failing public pension systems through necessary reforms, not tax hikes. He must have the will to end the culture of corruption under the dome. And he must have the guts to curb the state's compulsive and out-of-control spending.

If Pritzker does have that nerve, he will have the entrenched special interest groups who have benefited from these failed policies fighting him every step of the way.

It won't be easy, but to secure another 200 years of prosperity, it must be done.

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Dan McCaleb is news director of Illinois News Network, a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a non-profit media company dedicated to the principles of transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility. His columns include his own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinion or editorial position of The Southern. Contact Dan at dmccaleb@ilnews.org.

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