NPR Illinois ‘Seeking Solutions’ Forum Discusses State’s Financial Woes, How To Keep Tech Talent


From left, U of I political science professor Brian Gaines, U of I Research Park Director Laura Frerichs, and NPR Illinois News Director Sean Crawford.

Anna Casey/Illinois Public Media

The state’s fiscal health and the role of innovation in generating economic growth was the focus of NPR Illinois’ "Seeking Solutions" forum in Urbana Thursday evening.

The forum at the I Hotel and Conference Center was one of about a dozen that will be held around the state to hear from voters about various issues ahead of the midterm elections. The first question posed to panelists at the event was regarding the state’s financial health. Brian Gaines, political science professor at the University of Illinois, said that while the state’s unemployment numbers may be at record lows, the elephant in the room that could be on the minds of voters come Nov. 6 is the state’s debt.

“Basically we have much too big a debt and it’s continuing to grow,” Gaines said.  “And so even if you could say the unemployment numbers look good we’re, if not dead last in the nation, certainly bottom five in our fiscal health.”

Gaines said the state’s credit rating could put the state in a precarious situation in the event of another financial crisis. This is something that could hurt Republican governor Bruce Rauner and incumbent Republican  nationally in their bid for another term, Gaines said.

“What you’ll hear on the campaign trail is why one party is wholly to blame while the other isn’t,” he said.

The conversation at the forum then turned from the state’s fiscal health to what the state can do to spur innovation, and draw businesses to the area. U of I Research Park Director Laura Frerichs said there’s a common misconception that Illinois is deficient in tech talent.

“The number one state in the U.S. for graduates of computer science programs, which is the most in-demand of new tech types of graduates, is California,” Frerichs said. “And maybe that doesn’t surprise anybody, but it might surprise you that the number two state is Illinois.”  

On the topic of tech companies, one forum attendee asked about the prospect of Amazon, the multibillion dollar retail giant, selecting Chicago as their second company headquarters. The city has made the shortlist of possible locations.

Frerichs said Chicago has a legacy of connecting goods to markets all over the world since the days of department store catalogues, thanks to the state’s rail network, and that should make it an attractive candidate.

“You could get goods anywhere. And Chicago was at the forefront of that. They changed the way consumers received their goods,” Frerichs said.  

But aside from the city’s history, Frerichs said she believes a talent component will be a factor in Amazon’s decision, something she thinks the state as a whole is prepared to offer.

“Not only is the University of Illinois a bright contributor to tech talent but the entire state has such rich resources in engineering and computer science that should be a major attraction,” Frerichs said.  

Gaines also said that while the state’s debt may paint a bleak picture, he believes the states diverse industries can make it more resilient.

“This is a vibrant economy. It’s not impossible to solve fiscal problems. There are ways to get more revenue, cut spending, and make Illinois healthy again,” Gaines said.

Story source: WILL