None is more troubling than this: People are fleeing Illinois in record numbers. For four years running, this state has bled population. In 2017, Illinois lost a net 33,703 residents, dropping the state to 6th largest, below Pennsylvania.
Four years in a row is not a blip. It’s a trend. It’s alarming — worse, it’s accelerating.
What ought to be scarier to the remaining 12,802,023 people in Illinois is the dead silence from so many of their state and local officials, whose job it is to protect and nurture Illinois.
2018 is pivotal. It brings a governor’s race and new faces in the legislature and other offices.
Gov. Bruce Rauner has advanced a turnaround agenda, most of it swatted down by Democrats who control the legislature. What is the alternative proposed by House Speaker Michael Madigan or Senate President John Cullerton to bring more jobs, to reel in all the people — prospective employers and employees alike — now decamping to Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Texas, Florida, Colorado …?
There was — is — virtually none. Rauner aside, most of the ruling pols don’t say much. Madigan and Cullerton have spent a combined 86 years in Springfield, so don’t look to them for bold, disruptive ideas to create private sector growth, rescue public finances and create more taxpayers. The Illinois most of us see as gravely challenged is the Illinois they’ve created.
We write a lot about the urgent need to grow Illinois’ economy, its jobs base included, and stanch this population outflow. A week ago we framed the issue in an editorial handicapping Chicago’s chances to add 50,000 jobs by snagging the new Amazon headquarters. Among the conclusions: State and local leaders are trotting out their A-game incentives to lure Amazon. But what they can’t offer is a stable, business-friendly environment. Their public finances are a mess: Decades of overspending, overpromising and overborrowing raise the prospect of onerous tax increases to cover all the obligations that the pols have created in taxpayers’ names.
State and local lawmakers apparently didn’t get a wake-up call when Foxconn snubbed Illinois to build a giant electronics factory just over the state line in Wisconsin — close enough to benefit from Illinois’ transportation system but safely out of range of this state’s infamous dysfunction.
Yes, people leave Illinois for many reasons. Some seek warmer winters. But this isn’t just about the weather. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa all have Midwestern winters — and they’re still gaining population. Have you visited Sunbelt states enjoying population influxes? People there withstand hurricanes, tornadoes, sweltering heat, swarms of bugs, because there they found what Illinois historically offered: opportunity.
People follow jobs. But billions in debts scare present and prospective residents who know that eventually, they’ll be stuck with the bill — if they’re here.
This population plummet can be halted and reversed. A collapse into used-to-be-great status isn’t preordained. Illinois leaders should be signaling to Amazon and other employers (and employees) that they’re finally ready to address Illinois’ soaring taxes, runaway public pensions, overreaching regulations, high workers’ compensation costs — this state’s increasingly toxic climate for employers.
If Illinois leaders keep pretending all’s well enough on their watch, you’ll keep hearing that the Land of Lincoln is losing population. And you’ll see more forlorn parents watching their children leave.
The new year brings a chance for voters to factor this accelerating decline into their choices come Election Day. The people of Illinois should elect leaders who’ll recognize the crisis, restore the state’s squandered reputation for opportunity, and halt this exodus. The alternative: Return to office pols who’ll rule as they have for decades — while more For Sale signs sprout on lawns and more young people depart for college, many never to return.
The 33,703 are gone. The challenge for Illinois citizens is to stop many tens of thousands more from following them.
By: Editorial Board of Chicago Tribune, Dec. 22nd, 2017