The most misleading myths in Illinois politics

By Austin Berg, Illinois News Network | Feb 20, 2018

It’s no secret there’s a lot wrong with Illinois. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12, is an annual reminder of how far the state has drifted away from the virtues of its most illustrious lawmaker.

Fixing what ails the state requires Illinoisans of all political stripes to be honest about how they got here.

Here’s a handy list of some of the most popular myths that serve to distract, distort or defend the indefensible in Illinois:

“Chicago Democrats destroyed the state.”

Hard feelings between Chicago and the rest of Illinois are nearly as old as the state itself.

In the mid-1800s, for example, commodities trading sewed seeds of distrust among downstate farmers who sent their grain to Chicago, where its grade and price were determined by seemingly shadowy forces beyond their control.

Today, Illinoisans find the most powerful politician in state history was born and bred in the “Chicago machine,” a system of patronage and political privilege from a bygone era. House Speaker Mike Madigan, of course, is at the very least a mighty bystander in Illinois’ downfall, if not a primary cause.

But that doesn’t mean Illinois Republicans have clean hands. The Edgar ramp – the pension “reform” that in fact was a massive can-kicking exercise – is the namesake of a Republican governor. Some Republicans have been all too willing to block needed government consolidation efforts, because those overlapping local governments are sources of political power. And last year’s income tax hike was made possible by a handful of willing Republicans.

The policy choices that have dragged down the state are the result of years of bipartisan, transactional politics.

“State pensions are busted because politicians underfunded them.”

Politicians are indeed to blame for the pension mess. But that doesn’t mean taxpayers are, too. And it doesn’t mean that shackling future generations to debt they can never pay is a fair solution.

Illinoisans have paid billions more than the infamous Edgar ramp mandated to fund state pensions, with dismal results.

The real problem? The growth in benefits.

Total benefits promised to members of Illinois' five state-run pension funds increased at an average rate of 8.8 percent each year from 1987-2016, according to data from the Illinois Department of Insurance. That's an increase of more than 1,000 percent, or eight times faster than median household income growth over the same time.

This is not to say government workers don’t deserve a decent retirement. It’s not to say government workers were sold a fair bill of goods. It’s not to say government workers are to blame. It’s not even to say the typical worker takes home too high a pension.

It’s simply a fact that benefits have grown far beyond what Illinoisans could ever afford to pay.

“Property taxes are high because the state won’t fund our schools.”

Illinois homeowners shoulder some of the highest property taxes in the nation. But opponents of lowering those bills through cost-saving measures argue that they’re simply the result of the state not doing its part in funding education.

Here’s the rub: Illinois’ state and local governments spend more per student on K-12 education than any neighboring state, even when removing property-rich districts from the calculation. This isn’t a revenue problem, it’s a priorities problem.

Namely, Illinois’ spending on administrative costs is among the highest in the nation – exemplified by the state’s overabundance of school districts, each with its own expensive and often overlapping bureaucracy. Instead of demanding higher state taxes, try consolidating school districts first.

The real driver of property tax bills is the unsustainable growth in local government spending. Reformers should tackle state-mandated government union bargaining rules that hold taxpayers over a barrel in contract negotiations, growth in pension costs, and mandatory inflated wages on public construction projects in order to bring them down. Another state tax hike won’t solve any of those problems – or the high property tax bills that come with them.

“People aren’t leaving because of high taxes.”

The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute commissioned a poll of Illinoisans in 2016. It found 47 percent of those surveyed wanted to leave the state, the most common reason being taxes.

Until another poll comes out, lawmakers and pundits must make do with this.

Further, government data reveal it’s not retired snowbirds leading the march out of Illinois, it’s millennials. And the top three states to which Illinoisans decamped in the most recent tax year, according to IRS data, were Texas, Florida and Indiana.

Who moves to Indiana for the weather?

“Look, Minnesota!”

This one is the newest of the bunch. The argument is that Illinois should enact Minnesota’s progressive income tax because it’s seen better jobs growth and population growth than Illinois.

Here’s what proponents of the “Minnesota miracle” won’t tell you: Minnesota property taxes are far lower than Illinois’, ditto for workers’ compensation rates and prevailing wages. Its minimum wage is lower for smaller employers. They spend less on education per student (both for K-12 and in higher education), and its economy benefitted tremendously from the North Dakota oil boom.

Good luck getting progressive tax proponents to champion any of those policies.

Of course, there are far more myths floating in the Illinois ether than these five alone. But hopefully, Illinoisans can pause and take a second look the next time they hear a politician spin this yarn again.

Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network. Austin can be reached at aberg@illinoispolicy.org.

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