Former Gov. Jim Edgar says Illinois' inability to pull together has cost the state dearly as it tries to dig itself out of a deep financial hole.
It's a problem Edgar says he wants to chip away at with his new Edgar Fellows initiative at the Institute for Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.
In August, a group of 40 younger politicians and other state officials and leaders will meet for a four-day training session and follow-ups on key issues. Along the way, Edgar hopes they'll learn more about what he calls the poorly understood history of the state and make connections they'll later draw on to reach across geographical and ideological lines.
"If they're downstaters maybe they'll have an appreciation for some of the issues in Chicago and that all those people don't have horns on their heads, and vice versa -- that all the people downstate aren't all hicks," Edgar said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press.
The fellows -- a collection of state representatives, city and other local officials from around the state, nonprofit officials, private-sector executives and others -- were picked to represent a wide range of political ideologies, IGPA Director Robert Rich said.
"Our goal was to have this group reflect the diversity of the state of Illinois in every sense of the word -- geographic diversity, political diversity, racial and ethnic diversity," he said, adding that the program hopes to recruit a new group every year for several years.
Illinois is trying to find a way out of a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, one of the biggest shortfalls of any state, as well as other problems, such as a public pension system that is obligated to pay about $83 billion more to its retirees than it has.
Edgar, known as a moderate Republican who worked well with Democrats as governor from 1991-99, said the state's leaders seem to have lost the ability to compromise. And Illinois' financial problems are, in part, a result, he said.
"I think (those) people are what they are now," Edgar said of current state government leaders, including Gov. Pat Quinn. "That's why we want to work with some of the younger ones."
State Rep. Chapin Rose, a 38-year-old Republican from Mahomet in eastern Illinois, is one of Edgar's first 40 participants. Rose says legislative leaders often divided by geography and ideology can find common ground in the kind of problems Illinois faces.
"When you're forced to get along, you've got to get along," he said, noting that lawmakers did agree on budget cuts and a plan to prop up the state's ailing Medicaid system before the recent legislative session adjourned. "I thought the budget that happened this year was very bipartisan."
David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said that Edgar might be uniquely qualified among Illinois' elder statesmen to help create a better political climate in the state, citing his reputation for good management and strong ethics.
Edgar also stands in contrast to the two governors who followed him, George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, now both in prison.
Edgar's initiative, Yepsen said, could actually make a difference.
"I think this is a start at fostering a little better cooperation and civility among some younger political leaders," said Yepsen, whose institute isn't involved in Edgar's initiative.
"The state has to change the way it does business, and the reason it does is the state's in desperate financial straits," Yepsen said. "This isn't just a matter of being a do-gooder. This is a matter of getting the state's financial health restored."