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Reeder: State fair a big loser for state government

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014 11:50 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – Twenty years ago, the state implemented reforms designed to make the Illinois State Fair break even.

They failed. Big time. The fair has been as sure-fired a loser as a kid playing a carnival game.

Well, maybe that’s not fair. Every once and awhile, a youngster actually wins. Not so with the fair. It’s a carnie’s dream: A loser that won’t quit.

It and its Southern cousin, the DuQuoin State Fair, haven’t broke even once in the past two decades. State Fair Manager Amy Bliefnick told me she doesn’t know whether it’s possible for the state fair to operate in the black.

Leave it to a government bureaucrat to think losing money is always an option. During the past 20 years, the state fairs have lost $71.2 million.

Illinois taxpayers have paid those deficits. That’s money the state could have used to pay for something really important. Instead it has been spent on a couple of festivals.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the fairs.

As a teenager, I showed cattle and hogs. As parent, I’ve carried each of my three daughters on my shoulders through every nook and cranny of the State Fairgrounds.

Just last week, my 83-year-old father was regaling me with stories of how he and his best friend from high school showed Duroc hogs at the State Fair in 1950. He tells me the fair’s hog barn looks the same as 64 years ago. And, folks, it smells just the same, too.

But what really stinks are these deficits. Hosting fairs and festivals is not a core government function.

The money would be much better spent educating our kids, keeping our roads safe, incarcerating the worst in our society or lowering taxes.

Instead, we are spending it to bring Tilt-A-Whirls and deep-fried Snickers bars to Springfield.

Sorry, fairs are nice but not something in which government should be involved. They have known that for quite some time in the Lone Star State.

The State Fair of Texas is operated by a nonprofit corporation that manages to take in about $8 million more than it spends each year. That money gets spent on improving the Dallas city park where the fair is held.

So state fairs can break even. They can even turn a profit.

At a time when Illinois state government has the worst credit rating in the nation and is paying its bills months late, it’s time to take a serious look at making the fairs self-sufficient.

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and a journalist with Illinois News Network, a project of the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at sreeder@illinoispolicy.org.

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