Illinois is many things, but no one in their right mind would move there and those unlucky enough to have been born there are moving out as fast as they can find jobs or move their businesses somewhere else. Some move as far away as Florida or Texas, but many others are content to simply haul their assets a few miles to Iowa, Wisconsin or Indiana.
They don’t flee because of the weather; Florida may have easier winters, but the neighboring Midwestern states to which so many decamp are as uncomfortable in February as Illinois. It’s not for superior cultural or even educational opportunities available to residents of Fort Wayne or Des Moines either; with wonderful museums, a great symphony and world renowned art galleries, Chicago is and always has been an internationally recognized cultural center and Illinois’ universities and colleges are as good as any.
They are fleeing Illinois in jaw-dropping numbers because its citizens have the unique distinction of residing in one of the worst governed and most over-taxed states in the country. They drive on roads that are falling apart and are forced to bear the costs of an incomprehensible level of state and municipal corruption.
Illinois politicians use the law not to protect and serve, but to line the coffers of state and local governments as well as their own pockets; Chicago’s police are pretty good tax collectors, which they proved a few years ago when Mayor Rahm Emanuel jiggered with the city’s traffic cameras to allow them to issue thousands of more tickets to unsuspecting motorists, but seem unable to protect that city’s citizenry from thugs and thieves.
In 2015 alone, some 86,000 people fled the state draining net annual income to Illinois’ economy by nearly $5 billion. When researchers from the Paul Simon Policy Institute surveyed those leaving they discovered, not unexpectedly, that the main reasons they are pulling up stakes are state taxes and local property taxes, which are also the highest in the country and increasing with no real end in sight.
Illinois politicians have always been something of a joke and not just because so many of them depend on the votes of the departed to win elections. In 1965 I was shown around the newly opened Rayburn House Office Building by Iowa Congressman H.R. Gross. Mr. Gross was a fiscally responsible politician of the old school who rarely if ever voted to increase spending and was morally offended by government waste of which he considered the Rayburn Building a prime example.
He pointed out that at the time, it was the second most expensive government building per square foot in the country. The only building that cost taxpayers more per square foot was the rest room facility on the Illinois State Fairgrounds because it was partly through its construction contracts that Paul Powell, the state’s legendarily corrupt secretary of state, laundered the millions in payoffs he extracted from his fellow citizens before his death in 1970.
It’s been a long time coming, but Illinois is approaching the cliff at the end of the road the state has been travelling for so long. The state is so cash strapped that last year it had $15 billion in unpaid bills and was forced to raise state income taxes by 32 percent. Still, most analysts believe that even with the massive tax increases that are driving people out, it is on a slippery slope that may make it the first state to be forced into bankruptcy since Arkansas in the 1930s.
A study of the relationship between the state’s coming collapse and the cozy decades-long relationship its politicians have enjoyed with public employee unions in which they have traded the public’s money for campaign contributions, outright bribes and votes reveals a major reason why things are so completely out of control in the Land of Lincoln.
It seems that over the last 30 years, state pension benefits have increased at a compound rate of 8.8 percent, “six times more than total state revenue growth, eight times more than median household income growth and ten times more than inflation.” Only New Jersey’s public employee unions extracted more from their state’s politicians and New Jersey, like Illinois, is an economic basket case. A few years ago, a footnote in the Illinois state budget explained that ultimately the federal government would cover the shortfall, but that hope has vanished and no one seems to know what to do.
Had state politicians and union leaders held the rate of growth over the last few years to 5.4 percent, the system would be fully funded, Illinois would be fiscally sound and people wouldn’t be fleeing, but that would have required Illinois politicians and union leaders to have both common sense and an understanding that, as the University of Chicago’s Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once pointed out, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.