Election season in the land of shrinkin’

Election season in the land of shrinkin’

Getting Illinois to grow again starts with getting those who remain to believe it’s possible. And even more, to believe it’s a state worth saving.

Now that the bells and whistles of primary season have subsided, it’s time Illinoisans return to careful consideration of the state’s most pressing issue: there are fewer and fewer of us left.

Illinois’ population has been shrinking for four years straight. Only West Virginia has seen a longer slide, with five consecutive years of decline. Illinois fell to the sixth most populous state in the country last year, behind Pennsylvania. Even worse, Illinois’ depopulation was driven by residents leaving for other states: 1 every 4.6 minutes on average.

The people of this state deserve much better.

More detailed census data released March 22 underscore the fact that political leaders must make Illinois more attractive for families and businesses.

Of Illinois’ 102 counties, 83 saw population decline from July 2016 to July 2017. The long-term trend is even worse: 89 of 102 counties have shrunk since 2010, a phenomenon driven primarily by outmigration. Of Illinois’ 12 metro areas, 11 saw population decline over the year.

There was a time when opponents of any serious reform would just ignore this exodus. But that’s become much more difficult in the past few years. After his primary victory, Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker floated his theory for the cause of Illinois’ people problem.

“The reason that people are leaving the state is because we have complete chaos in government, with this governor unwilling to work with people,” he told Crain’s Chicago Business.

For what it’s worth, the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute polled Illinoisans in 2016 about why they wanted to leave the state. Even during the historic budget impasse, the most common reason was high taxes. A 2018 study by consumer finance site WalletHub showed typical Illinoisans shouldered a heavier total tax burden than residents of any other state in the region.

But Pritzker’s right about one thing, state government is in chaos. That breeds toxic uncertainty and cynicism in the hearts of Illinoisans. He’s just being myopic when it comes to the cause. What’s driving that chaos is much more deeply rooted than the actions of a single governor.

State spending outpaced Illinoisans’ incomes by 25 percent from 2005-2015. Just like in a household budget, overspending leads down a nasty road. For decades, state programs have grown too fast, government worker benefits have outstripped residents’ ability to pay for them and now there must be a reckoning.

Down one path is easing the iron grip of government worker unions on public coffers, spending responsibly and tackling the pension problem head on – all geared toward easing residents’ tax burden and attracting more investment to Illinois.

Instead, Pritzker’s cure-all is a progressive income tax. He says he only wants to make the rich pay their “fair share,” but to pay for the things Pritzker’s proposing, a progressive tax structure would mean massive tax hikes on the middle class. He can’t have it both ways.

Illinoisans can’t afford another tax hike. It won’t bring people here.

Of course, bringing people back to Illinois will require more than some newfound responsibility in government. It will require more than a tax cut, too.

It will require a complete reimagining of what public service should be. It will require a cultural shift among voters who have endured generations of abuse from Springfield, a quarter of whom voted in the recent primary election.

Getting Illinois to grow again starts with getting those who remain to believe it’s possible. And even more, to believe it’s a state worth saving.

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