While imposing a stiff prison sentence on former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, U.S. District Judge James Zagel contemplated an issue that, just over six years later, continues to debase this state’s prosperity.
“In the United States, we don’t much govern at gunpoint,” Zagel told the courtroom on Dec. 7, 2011. “We require willing and creative cooperation and participation to prosper as a civil society. This happens most easily when people trust the person at the top to do the right thing most of the time, and more important than that, to try to do it all of the time.”
Corruption at the top tears and disfigures the “fabric of Illinois” and is “not easily or quickly repaired,” Zagel said.
Trust in government is essential to civil society — not only governance that is corruption-free but also competent and responsible. Unfortunately, much of our leadership in this state is neither. Taxpayers know it and they’re giving up. They are fleeing Illinois.
It’s one thing to harbor natural skepticism toward government. It’s quite another to take the dramatic step of moving your family, your home, your livelihood to another state to escape it. But it’s happening.
The naysayers and deniers blame the weather. They eye-roll the U-Haul rebellion. They downplay the dysfunction. Good riddance to those stingy taxpayers, they trumpet.
But that is a shallow, ignorant and elitist viewpoint that dismisses the thoughtful and wrenching decisions thousands of once-devoted Illinoisans have made.
For four years in a row, Illinois has lost population in alarming numbers. In 2017, Illinois lost a net 33,703 residents, the largest numerical population decline of any state. That’s the size of St. Charles or Woodridge or Galesburg. Wiped off the map. In one year.
Demographers pinpoint Illinois as an outlier. Even states losing residents to out-migration generally ameliorate the loss with growth from new residents moving in and steady birth rates. But Illinois is shrinking in all categories.
On social media this week, we asked the Tribune Editorial Board’s followers for feedback on the Illinois exodus. Here is a sample of their answers:
“When we moved back to the Midwest to be closer to family, we moved to Indiana instead of Illinois. The budget mess was a factor.”
“Leaving June 2018 to Indiana. Property taxes are ridiculous (and) kids no longer in school here.”
“Our family left the Chicago northwest suburbs about five years ago for North Carolina. The property taxes were the main reason and the fact that it was only going to get worse due to the broken pension system and government.”
“We could handle the cold, avoid the crime and pay the tax. But the government turned on us (property, income, sales, parking, red-light/speed cameras, bags, soda). Never-ending. Tired of paying for everyone else’s retirement before mine.”
“Not gone yet, but leaving in 2018. Refuse to help fund public pensions and out-of-control school spending any longer.”
“I’m starting to plan. My kids have two more years of high school, then I’m gone. Dems are destroying this state. I don’t plan on paying another tax increase to pay for an out-of-control pension system. Rauner was my last hope. It’s obvious Dems will be in power for a while. Can’t beat ‘em, leave.”
Policy choices have consequences. One-party rule in Chicago has consequences. Having a state legislature and a governor, of opposite parties, whose self-interests eclipse those of taxpayers has consequences. A property tax system that is outright crooked has consequences. Corruption and lack of confidence in government have consequences — as Judge Zagel noted.
People are fleeing Illinois. And still, Democratic leaders in Chicago and Cook County, and their supporters, generally deny that high taxes, underfunded pensions, government debt and political dysfunction are the reasons for the exodus — or that it’s acute.
I suppose from their perch, in an affluent North Shore community or West Loop condo or downtown high-rise, they don’t see the alarming trend of out-migration. Therefore, it isn’t real. It’s overblown. It’s fake news.
So who’s living in a bubble these days? I’ll tell you. It isn’t the contemplative, responsible taxpayers making the grueling decisions to move. It’s the dismissive elitists who think they know better.
Kristen McQueary is a member of the Tribune Editorial Board.