John Tillman and the Illinois Policy Institute: Can Illinois be the Texas of the Midwest?

By Nancy J. Thorner

— It was on a mild day in early December 2015, when I traveled with great anticipation using the Metra Union Pacific North Line from my home in Lake Bluff to the Ogilvie Transportation Center in Chicago to conduct my personal interview with John Tillman, CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute, a 501(c)(3) organization. Tillman is considered one of the nation’s most prominent leaders of a state-based think tank – one that prides itself on independent research and education to generate policy solutions aimed at promoting personal freedom and prosperity in Illinois. From its Springfield, Illinois, office headed by Executive Vice President Kristina Rasmussen, the Institute shares its policy solutions with Illinois’ decision-makers, helping turn liberty principles into marketable policies that become law.

Through Tillman’s superb leadership at the Illinois Policy Institute, the think tank has become a model for liberty-based organizations across the country. Accordingly, Tillman is frequently asked to consult with other nonprofit, free-market organizations on marketing and organizational strategy. In 2011 Tillman won the prestigious Roe Award for his leadership, innovation and accomplishments in the world of public policy.

Here in Illinois, Tillman has transformed what many wrote off as a blue state into a place ripe for free-market reforms with the re-launch of the Illinois Policy Institute and the founding of key organizations, including the Liberty Justice Center, a public-interest law firm, and the Illinois Opportunity Project. Through appearances on the FOX News Channel, FOX Business and the BBC, and in the The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times and other news outlets, Tillman ably advances the free-market message of the Illinois Policy Institute. Before joining the world of public policy, Tillman was a businessman and entrepreneur, and he continues to be. He resides in Chicago’s north suburbs with his wife, Julie, and daughter, Lauren.

With the above in mind, and with a list of questions in hand, a taxi delivered me to the Chicago headquarters of the Illinois Policy Institute at 190 South LaSalle Street. Having completed my security clearance as a preregistered guest to see Tillman, I stepped off the elevator at Suite 1500 where I was cordially greeted by a receptionist and shortly thereafter by Tillman, who had been alerted to my arrival. This being my first visit to Suite 1500, I was duly impressed and thought how fitting that such a fine facility should be home to the Illinois Policy Institute. Escorted down a well-lit hallway to Tillman’s office, I could see equally well-lit glass-fronted offices and tables at which Illinois Policy Institute staff members were hard at work.

Seated comfortably in Tillman’s office, my interview officially began.

Q: What has to happen in 2016 to enable more people to stop despairing and instead enter into the fight, and especially keep more Illinoisans from leaving the state?

A: Seemingly absent in John Tillman is a hint of pessimism. Ever an optimist, Tillman spoke of the past and of all the challenges this nation has overcome. Cited was the depression of the 20’s; FDR and the mindset of dependency he created; Jim Crow and the racial segregation enforced in the South; threats posed by the Cold War; and the stagflation of the late 70’s and early 80’s.

As to keeping Illinoisans happy campers within the state so they don’t pick up and move, Tillman, without a second’s hesitation, indicated how making the state prosperous again will create conditions for opportunities that will benefit all of its residents. And just how might prosperity be restored to Illinois? Enumerated in quick sequence by Tillman were the following reforms deemed essential to restoring the state’s prosperity: 1) regulatory reform that makes it easier to hire and invest in workers; 2) unemployment insurance reform that doesn’t continually punish employers with ever-higher rates; 3) reform of the public-employee pension system to create fairness for taxpayers while also securing retirement benefits already earned by government workers; and 4) reform for runaway health insurance benefits that offer gold-plated benefits with little financial contribution by employees.

Mr. Tillman suggested that reform won’t be easy, as entrenched interests have been the beneficiaries under the present system. Union power is feared because their demands are strong and uncompromising. In keeping with Tillman’s spirit of optimism, he continues to believe that “Illinois is well-positioned to become the Texas of the Midwest, but it will take political courage.”

Q: It’s been an unprecedented year without an overall budget.Yesterday (12/7) a piecemeal $3 billion spending bill was passed, but the reality is that things are getting worse. With $214 billion in debt, and only $30 billion in assets, is Governor Rauner tackling Illinois’ problems in the right way given that little of “his side” of the argument seems to be reaching voters?

A: Tillman reassured me that Gov. Bruce Rauner is going about things in the right way. Tillman went on to say that he considers the budget impasse a victory. Why? Because Rauner did not capitulate and raise taxes as others have done in the past. Tillman gave two reasons for not fretting about the budget impasse:

If the present trend continues, at the end of the fiscal year, which is June 30, 2016, the Illinois government will for the first time in decades, spend about the same as the revenue that came in. That’s why, despite all the challenges, the budget impasse has been fiscally responsible and why the governor deserves credit for holding the line on spending.

If major reform is the outcome of the impasse, higher economic growth will result. As for tax increases, they would only be considered by Rauner if his major reform measures are also adopted: Redistricting reform for political maps, term limits on elected officials, a property-tax freeze with cost-control ability for local governments, and workers’ compensation reform are among the key reforms needed.

As to the second part of Question 2, What is Governor Rauner doing right? Three positive items were noted as to Rauner’s plan of action: 1. Passing a balanced budget for the first time and sticking to it. 2) Passing measures to enact pro-growth reforms such as workers’ compensation reforms, reform of project labor agreements and prevailing wages, all of which will keep more jobs in Illinois, along with the tax revenues that flow from those jobs. 3) For ALL TAXPAYERS to have a seat at the table, rich, poor and in-between.

Q: The Illinois Policy Institute is doing yeoman’s work. How can we get more of what your organization is doing and producing in front of our fellow Illinoisans?

A: Not shy about tooting his organization’s horn, John Tillman implored every citizen to sign up as a subscriber to the Illinois Policy Institute ( to keep abreast of research being done and to read the posted news items, almost all of which are applicable to Illinois. But it didn’t stop there. Tillman further suggested that the same request be made to those on our personal e-mail lists and also as Facebook postings. With pride, Tillman spoke of the huge amount of traffic being directed to the Illinois Policy Institute’s website. Said Tillman, “It’s as big as it has ever been.” A figure of 250,000 hits was given, which is a good sign that the electorate is electronically engaged. This a good volume for a public policy organization but only reflects a small fraction of the Institute’s total marketing output.