24 Hours in Springfield – Lessons Learned, Sandwiches Regretted(ish) - Metropolitan Planning Council

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24 Hours in Springfield – Lessons Learned, Sandwiches Regretted(ish)

Image courtesy Tucker Barry, Illinois Environmental Council

Research Assistant Justin Williams outside the Illinois Environmental Council office in Springfield (back row, far right).

One of the best things about being a Research Assistant at MPC is that I get to see important projects all the way through. Since a lot of the work I do at MPC is researching policy, tracking City and State legislation, and preparing MPC’s legislative outreach materials, that means I get the opportunity to be on the phone or in the room with some pretty heavy hitters in Chicago and Illinois politics. It’s a real privilege and a testament to the Research Assistant program: at other organizations, I suspect interns would rarely get this kind of access.

Case in point: two weeks ago, I was invited to travel with Josh, Emily, and MarySue to Springfield to participate in discussions around a few initiatives I’ve been involved in: our policy work on Transform Illinois that makes government more transparent and effective,  an expansion of a federal drinking water program to help low income communities build their water capacity,  and some revenue generation ideas for water supply issues.

After a frantic day of running around the capital, here are my takeaways from the experience.

The train is better than most people will admit. I’ve heard a lot of people gripe about the train. Don’t believe them: it’s a party on rails. There’s a bunch of interesting people going to and from Springfield, talking about their goals (Southbound), accomplishments (Northbound), and war stories (both ways). And if they’re in the lounge car, they might be a little more, err, talkative. Plus, you might spy some buffalo from the train.

Press coverage matters. We went to Springfield in large part to participate in a press event highlighting Transform Illinois. Transform is a growing coalition of lawmakers, civic organizations like MPC, and researchers pushing legislation to make Illinois government more effective and transparent. We’ve been successful in working together to pass seven bills through the state legislature so far, and we’re looking for some more legislative wins this year. The press event showcased our successes and the need for further action.

Money matters – go figure. In the week before our Springfield trip, a handful of us at MPC put our noggins together and brainstromed some potential water-related revenue streams that could needed dollars for a range of water resource management concerns throughout Illinois. This money could be used to remove lead service lines, to maintain or repair infrastructure, and to boost the technical capacity of struggling water systems. The state agencies that oversee water issues – IEPA, the Dept. of Natural Resources, and the Dept. of Public Health – are all grossly understaffed, so these resources could help there, too. In Springfield, we presented these concepts to folks in a position to turn those ideas into policy. I’m proud of my involvement in this project, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do such interesting and important work.

Horseshoes are confusing. The horseshoe (the food item, not the equestrian footwear) is a Springfield “specialty.” It’s a heap of food that defies logic: a piece of Texas toast covered with [meat of your choice], topped with a mound of fries, and smothered in cheese sauce. The horseshoe competes with the Italian Beef for most cardiac arresting, most beloved Illinois sandwich. Is it a good idea to eat a horseshoe? Of course not. Should you do it anyway? Don’t be ridiculous: of course you should. I rode the Springfield pony at Obed and Issac’s (a fun downtown brewery that’s open late).

Our partners at the Illinois Environmental Council are superstars. Because I handle MPC’s in-house legislative tracking, I have a lot of email contact with one of our most important legislative partners in Springfield: the Illinois Environmental Council. They advance some of our most ambitious legislative efforts, like this session’s lead service line replacement bill and water rate affordability study. They do a fantastic job: I got to see Jen Walling work a room of legislators to move our lead service line replacement bill, which makes me especially grateful for the work they do.

Emily, Josh, and MarySue have great stories. Ask Josh about the time he fumbled a machine gun on a train in Turkey.

The work I do as a Research Assistant matters. On this trip, I talked with Senators, staffers, a Deputy Governor, and top brass at the Illinois Department of Public Health and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency about the work I’ve produced at MPC. It’s incredible, really, and I feel fortunate to be part of the work that MPC does.

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