Facts are not always enough
Disparity in statewide spending leads to division when it should show the path to reconciliation
By Ted Cox
Facts are stubborn things, one of our finest Founding Fathers wrote.
Unfortunately, people can be even more stubborn.
Earlier this week, before heading off to the State Fair for the back-to-back political rallies on Governor's Day and Democrat Day to kick off the campaign season, we wrote about a new study from the Paul Simon Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale on the statewide disparity in government spending.
To briskly review, the paper, "The Politics of Public Budgeting in Illinois," divided the state into six areas: Cook County, its five collar counties, 19 other northern counties, 50 central counties (almost half the state total), nine southwest counties, and 19 southern counties. It found that the southern counties got the most back in state spending, $2.81 for every tax dollar, while the central region got back $1.87 on the dollar, the southwest got $1.42, and the north $1.24. "Debtor" areas were Cook County, receiving 90 cents on the dollar, and above all its collar counties, getting 53 cents back in state spending for every tax dollar contributed to state revenue.
The response was not what we expected. Or maybe it was. It was certainly anticipated by the paper's authors, and it shows what we're up against as we try to insist we are all One Illinois.
"What!" Lou Ann Jacobs responded on Twitter. "You expect those who believe this myth to actually change their rant about Chicago? Why ruin a perfectly good rant with the facts??"
The paper's authors at SIU Carbondale, John Foster and John Jackson, expected exactly that. As we previously noted: "The studied 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.'"
The southern region — no, make that all of what we try to resist calling "downstate Illinois" — has been preyed upon by politicians demonizing Chicago and suggesting that it siphons off a disproportionate amount of state funding. The study itself points out that this tactic goes back generations, to when Chicago's Mayor Richard J. Daley was the statewide bogeyman pulling the strings of everything going on in Springfield, and that he's been replaced in the present day by House Speaker Michael Madigan.
When Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a radical revision of state education funding last year, he labeled it a "Chicago bailout," even though it would have benefited poor school districts across the state. And on Governor's Day at the State Fair Wednesday, Madigan's name was mentioned more than any other, almost as an incantation, as Republicans tried to tie him to Rauner's Democratic opponent, J.B. Pitzker.
On the other hand, however, it's no better for Chicagoans to adopt a superior, "So there," attitude toward the study's findings.
"Because downstate voters don't read," Tony Loving commented on Facebook.
"It's a classic GOP trope," added Brian Hennessey, "cry about taxation when in reality red areas of the country always receive back more in tax dollars than they send to the capital."
Fair enough, but perhaps in this case political parties should be left out of it. As the study indicates, the vast area of the state outside Chicago has to spend more on necessary infrastructure like roads and bridges — essential to keeping farms vital, whether they're shipping corn and soybeans or hogs and cows to the market — while it needs to create many of its own resources when it comes to social services like education and health care.
Rural Illinoisans also might well ask what's the actual disparity within Cook County? If Chicago Public Schools are getting additional funding because a larger proportion of the students classify as low-income, where's the money that needs to be going to southern suburbs like Harvey and Robbins?
In fact, the hidden dynamite in the paper is the finding that the collar counties — Lake, McHenry, Kane, DuPage, and Will — are getting back just more than half what they're contributing in tax revenue. As the News-Gazette in Champaign noted in an editorial: "If any region should feel alienated from state government, it's the suburbanites, according to the research." That's political kindling for politicians eager to inflame resentment in areas they can then control.
So facts aren't always enough. Sometimes, what's required is the compassion, understanding, and empathy to accept and act on those facts.
Chicagoans and suburbanites need to comprehend that the rest of the state not only has much to offer culturally, agriculturally, and aesthetically — in monuments like "The Hewer" in Cairo and in the vast green expanse known as the Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest — but it also needs that added assistance because it doesn't have the resources the city and suburbs have at hand.
And residents in the rest of the state need to know when they're being played by politicians lying to them that Chicago is a behemoth taking everything that's best in Illinois and hoarding it away. It's simply not factually true.
Meanwhile, suburbanites, who might be the first to grant that they have the best of both worlds, need something more than just recognition to keep them from feeling no better than a cash cow being milked by the rest of the state.
What can One Illinois do to bridge that divide? What stories do Chicagoans need to hear about what's going on in the rest of Illinois, and what can Chicago and the suburbs do to come to a meeting of the minds with their fellow Illinoisans?
"Maybe if Chicagoans and suburbanites actually went to southern Illinois and explored the natural resources, hiking, fishing, and beauty, we wouldn’t need to subsidize our southern family," commented Mary Jo Shaver on Facebook. "Stay out of Michigan and Wisconsin! Support your own state! Spend locally!"
We're willing to grant that neighboring states are enticing, but that's a start. Let us know what else we can do, with comments on Facebook or Twitter, or by writing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We're listening. That's a start for all of us who consider ourselves One Illinois.