As president of the business-based Civic Federation for 21 years, Laurence Msall delved in the trenches of local and state government finance and economics, his expertise helping provide advice, guidance and criticism for the public, Illinois governors and Chicago mayors.
Msall, whose gentlemanly demeanor and thoughtful speaking were coupled with an intense passion for budgeting and tax policy, died Saturday. He was 61.
News of his death spurred a wave of reactions from many in Illinois government as well as the financial community in Chicago.
“Laurence had a double perspective on state and local finance. He had been in state government in a top budget capacity and then he had become very knowledgeable about Chicago and local finance as well,” said R. Eden Martin, the former president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. “He was an advocate for reform, and he was a strong proponent of pension reform in particular.”
Noting Msall worked for the administrations of two Republican governors, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker in a statement commended Msall for having “played a key role advancing the discourse in Illinois. He served our state proudly under Governors (George) Ryan and (Jim) Thompson and will be remembered for his advocacy in confronting complex policy challenges.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she was “devastated” to learn of Msall’s death, noting he loved Chicago and calling him “a fierce defender of good policy for both the City and the rest of our state.”
Msall, who lead the nonpartisan budget watchdog group since 2002, died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital of complications from heart surgery, said his daughter, Lucy. He had lived in Inverness for the past several years and previously had been a longtime resident of Oak Park.
“Laurence’s contributions to the Civic Federation were immeasurable and his sudden passing comes as a devastating blow to members of the Civic Federation family,” the Civic Federation said in a statement. “While Laurence was the Civic Federation to so many in the community, his real legacy was in helping to make the Civic Federation the indispensable voice for fiscal responsibility throughout the state of Illinois and that mission will go on through the outstanding staff that Laurence developed.”
Msall grew up first in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side and he then moved with his family to Oak Park in 1975. He graduated from St. Ignatius College Prep High School in Chicago in 1980 and earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and sociology from Knox College in Galesburg in 1984. After attending law school at night, he earned a law degree from Loyola University Chicago in 1992.
Msall began his career working for the state of Illinois, in the state Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, which is now called the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. In 1990, he was named the associate director of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, and he soon was promoted to be the committee’s vice president.
In that role, Msall analyzed economic development issues for the commercial club. Issues he worked on included the feasibility of a third Chicago-area airport and then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plan to close the Meigs Field airport — which eventually occurred in 2003.
In February 1999, Msall left the Civic Committee to join the administration of Gov. George Ryan as a senior adviser for economic development and infrastructure. Msall helped oversee the state departments of Commerce and Community Affairs, Revenue, Transportation and the state’s housing and other development authorities, working closely with Ryan and his staff on various issues related to taxation, transportation and business, according to his Civic Federation biography.
Msall left state government in January 2002 to become president of the Civic Federation, a generally business-friendly group that provides analysis and recommendations on government finance issues for Chicago and the state of Illinois. Over the next two decades-plus, Msall was both the public face of the organization as well as an analyst himself, scrutinizing budgets and operations of Chicago’s City Hall, the Chicago Public Schools, City Colleges of Chicago, the Chicago Park District, Cook County, DuPage County and the state of Illinois.
“Laurence Msall was a unique and important figure in Chicago’s civic discourse,” former Chicago Mayor and current U.S. ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said in a statement posted on Twitter. “His passion for the future of our city was clear to anyone who knew him.”
Illinois State Comptroller Susana Mendoza, called Msall in a statement “a crucial voice advocating for honest budgeting.”
“Laurence was such an important bridge between the business community and government, holding the city, state, county and other units of government accountable by analyzing their budgets,” the Democratic comptroller said.
“Even if I disagreed with some of his or his board’s policy positions, he was so professional in debating the pros and cons of budget options,” she said. “His passing leaves a void that will not easily be filled. Laurence was a giant in Illinois for his knowledge of finances.”
Among the areas where Msall was most outspoken involved government entities’ lack of funding pension obligations.
“Leaders in Springfield still seem to be shocked by the reality that stabilizing the pension funds will require additional tax dollars due to decades of state-mandated underfunding,” Msall wrote in an opinion piece in the Tribune in 2014.
In a state where Msall was a regular critic of government financial instability, he was complimentary to Pritzker’s efforts to stabilize finances and using pandemic relief funds for one-time rather than creating new programs and spending obligations.
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“The governor’s proposal is in stark contrast to gimmicks and dubious accounting changes that have historically been implemented to make or reduce already insufficient statutory payments,” Msall said of Pritzker’s proposed budget for this budget year, which was widely adopted by the Democratic controlled legislature.
He also recently voiced support for both Cook County’s 2022 and 2023 budgets, hailing the county’s “steady fiscal stewardship” and noting that a new pension contribution and pension reserves were among the “steps that have helped the county plan for budget gaps over time and have put the county in a good financial position to recover from the economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Similarly, he expressed cautious optimism in early 2022 about Lightfoot’s 2022 spending plan, and later in the year told the Tribune that many of his group’s “major concerns” were addressed “very positively” in Lightfoot’s 2023 budget.
Msall also had been a trustee of Knox College since 2017. He also was a member of the board of the Chicago Civic Consulting Alliance.
A marriage to his first wife, Mary Jo, ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter, Msall is survived by his wife, Nicola Hill-Cordell; two other daughters, Camille and Matilda; three stepsons, Alex, Tommy and Oscar Cordell; two stepdaughters, Samantha Mueller and Tess Cordell; three step-grandchildren, Valerie, Owen, and Reece Jeffrey; one brother, Michael; and seven sisters, Anita Msall, Karin Fischer, Mary Rogers, Camille Msall, Madeleine Msall, Christianne Msall and Julianne Pegler.
A visitation will take place from 4 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday at Salerno’s Galewood Chapel, 1857 N. Harlem Ave., Chicago. A funeral mass will be held at 10 a.m. on Wednesday at St. Giles Church, 1045 Columbian Ave., Oak Park.
Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.