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Let's compare: Iowa and Illinois fairgrounds...and foundations

Cows in field
The differences are many and so are the results. What Illinois needs now is a better chance at success...and better than a bull that can't breed.

Last month, my family and I spent a week showing cattle at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

We stalled in a well-ventilated, well-maintained barn. We showed in a historic pavilion that was renovated and air conditioned about 10 years ago, thanks to an $800,000 donation from the Prairie Meadows Racetrack. On the way to tie-outs, we walked past a construction site, where workers renovated the Oman Family Youth Inn, thanks to a $1 million donation from the Oman family. We exercised cattle in the “Bob & Deb Pulver Outdoor Arena,” built in 2003, thanks to another donation.

We drove past well-manicured landscapes, where workers trimmed and mowed and mulched. We noted the HyVee Fun Forest, Pella Plaza, and buildings remodeled with help from Farm Bureau and Vermeer Manufacturing.

On the first night we were on the grounds, their fairgrounds’ Blue Ribbon Foundation hosted a corn dog fundraiser, bringing in more than $600,000.

That’s more than a half million dollars. With corn dogs.

Meanwhile, back in Illinois, we can’t even pass a bill to set up a foundation. A foundation that would, incidentally, let us collect free money to maintain our fairgrounds. A foundation that would make our fair less reliant on state dollars, holding money separate from the state treasury.

Oh, but we’ve tried.

Last year, then-representative Raymond Poe, now Director of Agriculture, introduced legislation to create a fairgrounds foundation; it passed the Senate, but Speaker Madigan never called it for a vote in the House. This spring, a bipartisan group of legislators tried again. In the final days of the session, Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, tacked on an amendment that would both re-open the Illinois State Museum and remove the procurement code exemption from the Foundation.

What’s that mean? In a nutshell, the original bill said that privately-funded projects should be exempt from the state procurement process – a system that can drive projects to union labor and, according to IDOA, can double or triple the cost of a project.

Manar wanted that language out. Madigan likely agreed. The bill lost support from IDOA and IDNR and died a quiet death.

Finances and pastures

And so here we sit, with a fairgrounds in need of $180 million worth of back maintenance. And next door, they can raise more than a half million dollars with corn dogs.

The entire situation is deeply aggravating. We are where we are because of decades of fiscal irresponsibility within Illinois government. There’s no money for anything outside of Chicago. We can’t even pass a budget. And when they do finally pass something, it’s a paltry stop-gap budget with a few dollars here and there. For IDOA, it looks like this:

  • $5 million for Soil & Water Conservation District operations, conservation cost-share practices.
  • $13 million for University of Illinois Cooperative Extension.
  • $2.6 million to continue regulatory functions of the Medical Cannabis Pilot Program.
  • $5.1 million for county fairs.

But here’s the thing: none of this fixes anything. The Illinois legislative body has waited over a year to pluck the lowest hanging fruit and is presenting it to us as a bumper crop.

Buildings will continue in disrepair, county fairs will continue to struggle, buildings remain closed at the Illinois State Fair. Schools get by…for a while. Agencies that protect land and water will continue to be underfunded. Businesses will continue to leave Illinois. Chicago Public Schools will continue to bleed (our) money.

Because nothing was fixed.

It’s like this: earlier this summer, we discovered our new young bull had a (brace yourself here) broken penis. An unfortunate pasture accident, to be certain. As of this writing, he’s receiving veterinary care and resting in the barn.

Metaphorically speaking, however, if this bull with the broken penis were the Illinois budget, it is as if the Illinois General Assembly got him in, washed him and clipped him up nice, and then sent him back out to pasture with a slap on his back and, “Good luck, buddy! Next year’s calf crop better be a good one!”

We should feel equally disheartened by this band-aid budget. Our legislators just sent us back out to the pasture to do a job we are wholly unequipped to do.

We should expect more, and they should deliver it. With a foundation bill. No excuses.

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