Everybody hurts

But contrary to public perception, downstate Illinois gets back much more in state revenue than it puts in, with Chicago and its suburbs footing the bill

 A sightseer stands atop Camel Rock at the Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest in downstate Herod. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

A sightseer stands atop Camel Rock at the Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest in downstate Herod. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

A new statewide study finds that — contrary to common perception — southern Illinois gets a much larger return on state tax funding than any other region, with Chicago and especially its suburbs footing the bill.

The study, "The Politics of Public Budgeting in Illinois," released last week by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, also calls out politicians who prey on those misconceptions to divide voters. It specifically mentions attacks on House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago like those repeatedly made by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

The paper pointedly compares public perceptions about how much local residents give to the state in taxes and how much they think their region gets back against the reality in what the north, south, central, southwest areas, Chicago, and its collar counties actually receive in state funding.

Using 2013 data from the General Assembly's Legislative Research Unit, the study found that 19 counties south of a line stretching across the state including Jackson, Perry, Jefferson, Wayne, Edwards, and Wabash counties get back $2.81 for every dollar they contribute in taxes. Some 50 central Illinois counties — almost half the state total — get back $1.87 for every dollar taxed. Nine southwest counties including Calhoun, Jersey, Madison, St. Clair, Monroe, Randolph, Bond, Clinton, and Washington get back $1.42 on the dollar. And 19 northern counties outside Chicago and its collar counties get back $1.24.

 (Paul Simon Policy Institute)

(Paul Simon Policy Institute)

By contrast, Chicago's Cook County gets back 90 cents from the state for every dollar contributed in taxes, and the five suburban collar counties get back 53 cents on the dollar.

The study is sympathetic to downstate needs, as that area has fewer residents and more extensive roads and other public needs like education and health care to maintain. It also points out that "the major contours of the 2018 budget are not dramatically different from the 2015 or even the 2013 budget."

It also finds that all state residents feel they contribute more in tax revenues than they get back in funding, a perception pronounced in southern Illinois. "As we anticipated the downstate voters are the most alienated or disenchanted with their lot from state government as compared to their peers in the other two regions of the state," the paper states. "They are the group most convinced (66 percent) that they are not receiving their fair share but that is simply not true for most of the state geographically." It added, though, that people in Chicago and the suburbs feel almost equally put-upon.

The study blamed "a great deal of political rhetoric and folklore that is widely accepted and heard repeatedly in almost every political campaign in the regions," adding, "It is quite clear that downstate taxes are not being disproportionately siphoned off and spent in the city of Chicago."

There are reasons, though, for the difference between public perception and reality, in that some politicians promote those myths for their own gains.

"It is clearly the case that the public’s perception of an issue may well not square with all the empirical facts," write authors John Jackson and John Foster of SIU Carbondale. "People believe what they have been taught, what they have told by trusted sources, particularly public figures, sources they trust in the media, and what they want to believe. Never mind what the factual basis for those beliefs are and how complex the empirical realities of establishing what 'the facts are.'"

Yet they quickly add, "If the mass public does not believe in what are objectively provable facts, this ignorance corrupts the political discourse and makes the adoption of rational, evidence-based public policy very problematic."

If the mass public does not believe in what are objectively provable facts, this ignorance corrupts the political discourse and makes the adoption of rational, evidence-based public policy very problematic.
— John Jackson and John Foster of SIU Carbondale

The paper points out that this economic dynamic is not unusual from state to state. All states have vital areas and pockets that need more assistance. "What is different or at least exaggerated in Illinois," it adds, "is the extent to which many Illinois leaders emphasize, exploit and exacerbate these regional differences for their own advantage. One of the most tried and true political strategies in Illinois is to run against Chicago. Or alternatively, running against major leaders of Chicago. As the original example, Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Daley Machine in his day was always a staple for downstate candidates to target their ire against.

"More recently, the stand-in for running against Chicago is to run against Speaker of the House Michael J. Madigan the long-time leader of the House Democrats and the chairman of the Illinois State Democratic Party."

Madigan has been a frequent whipping boy of Rauner and conservative forces like the Illinois Policy Institute, and just Monday Rauner was quoted as saying he "hopes" the speaker has been "doing something illegal" and "gets prosecuted."

Jackson and Foster argue that this undercuts the political process and creates an environment that led to the state budget impasse that crippled public institutions — especially social services and higher education — in the years Rauner failed to agree on a budget with the General Assembly.

"This widespread lack of faith in state government is a problem for representative democracy," the paper states, especially it would appear in Illinois.