House Speaker Michael Madigan has had the political leverage in the state for decades. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)
If only Illinois taxpayers were just a bunch of stupid frogs, as in that old wives’ tale.
If taxpayers were frogs, they’d sit calmly in that warm stockpot forged over the decades by Democratic boss Mike Madigan, with the temperature rising all around them.
They’d sit. And they’d never jump out.
Frogs wouldn’t read stories from that U.S. census report about taxpayers fleeing Illinois in record numbers, with Illinois losing more residents than any other state.
And they wouldn’t be particularly interested in reading columns and editorials about the despotic politics in Illinois that led to all that red budget ink and crippling pension debt.
Your average frog wouldn’t know that Madigan has had the political leverage in Illinois for decades. And they wouldn’t much care that he serves the big, hungry and connected mouths in Illinois, the mouths that can call reporters and get their stories out about why they need more, before they sit down to eat.
Frogs don’t know about any of that because frogs can’t read. So they don’t talk to reporters about pension debt and budget deficits. Frogs don’t trade votes for tax dollars as do the powerful public employee unions.
Who cares what frogs think? They don’t even golf.
What frogs do best, though, besides eating flies, is float. And they float just fine.
So they bob in the warming water in Boss Madigan’s pot, their legs dangling, in the way of all frogs.
And before the frogs know it, they’re simmering, and their frog meat is tender and flaky and sweet, so the big hungry mouths that do much of the political talking can get their fill.
At least that’s how the old wives’ tale works. I’m told it doesn’t work in reality, but in Illinois it’s worked this way for years.
Happily, taxpayers aren’t frogs. They have feet and they’re running and jumping out of Illinois, aren’t they?
According to that new U.S. Census Bureau report, Illinois has lost more residents than any other state for the third year in a row. The state’s population, at 12.8 million, is the lowest it’s been in a decade.
And all this comes as the state can’t pay its bills, as the pension obligation debt from the Madigan-friendly public employees unions and the red ink from the budget deficit strangle economic growth.
But there is more bad news.
More than 114,000 people fled Illinois last year. Others have moved in to replace some of those who’ve fled. And there’s a big difference between the refugees and the newcomers.
According to the fiscally conservative Illinois Policy Institute, the people who are leaving have more income than the people who are coming. There’s an income differential of $3 billion to $4 billion a year.
Michael Lucci, an analyst with the institute, has been studying the economics of population changes in Illinois for years.
"What’s not being especially discussed is that we’re not only in the midst of population drop to other states, but we’re also in the midst of wealth flight," Lucci said.
"What about those who remain? It’s like a cable company losing its customers to competitors," Lucci said. "The cable company responds by raising its rates on existing customers. And that adds to the pressure on those who stay."
And who pays? Take a guess.
Illinois is past the tipping point. With the state’s finances and politics in such bad shape, with Democrats and their handmaidens — the trial lawyers — controlling things, private businesses aren’t eager to invest in Illinois.
Young people chase jobs to other states. And the parents of those young people who are leaving?
They grumble about the cold, yes, but if the kids were sticking close, many would stay, to watch their grandchildren, to help keep their families close and strong.
That won’t be found in the statistics and government reports. But it is found in human nature.
So when the kids leave town, looking for economic opportunity elsewhere and make their lives, say, in Texas or Tennessee, their parents think, "What the hell are we doing here? Why not go where it’s warm? Why not go where bullets don’t fly across the expressways?"
So they go, taking their tax revenue with them, and the state of Illinois loses even more.
The state’s largest employer is government. And those who work for government might mind tax increases and so on, but they know it’s all coming back to them. That’s why public-sector unions support Democrats, their political partners who have the hands that feed them tax money.
And those who don’t work for government? They think, "What am I doing here?"
Boss Madigan is beholden to the public-sector unions. Gov. Bruce Rauner appealed to the private sector. Yet he seems to be talking past many of those voters, unable or unwilling to connect with the worries and concerns of the people who put him in office.
The pressure mounts, the unions want to get paid and heat is applied through property tax increases. The public unions and the Democrats have great access to the media, which dutifully report their worries and concerns, and often they are cast as victims of the political process and of Republicans.
And private-sector taxpayers? They don’t have such access. They’re not the ones howling in the budget stories. They’re not considered victims. They’re not considered at all.
If they’re considered, they’re considered as props, as the people who pay, to keep the rest of it going.
And the water begins to boil.
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