Our View: Loss of congressional seat exposes problems facing Illinois

Perhaps the biggest problem is our public school funding system that’s reliant on local property taxes

Illinois’ reckoning for its poor government leadership, mismanagement and high taxes has come due yet again with the U.S. Census Bureau’s announcement this week that our state will lose at least one seat in Congress based on the 2020 census.

A sizable number of Illinois residents don’t want to live here anymore and it’s not because of the weather, given how many have fled to Wisconsin, Iowa and Indiana. We face a mountain of problems created by our state’s leaders. The loss of a congressional seat just exposes our wounds.

Illinois, which has lost at least one congressional seat in each of the last nine decades, will now have 17 seats in the U.S. House. We peaked at 27 seats in 1910.

We are one of only three states that have lost population in the past 10 years (Mississippi and West Virginia are the others). Six other states are losing a congressional seat because other states grew faster in comparison: California, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Those seven congressional seats went to Texas (2), Florida, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon.

According to data released Monday, Illinois has a total population of 12.8 million people, a decrease of more than 18,000 people from 2010. A December 2020 WBEZ report found 1.6 million people left Illinois from 2014 to 2018, a 15.6% increase from 2009 to 2013. The number of people moving here has decreased, so has the number of immigrants coming to Illinois. Immigration, which slowed in the Trump era, had previously bolstered the state’s population growth.

Gov. JB Pritzker attributed the population loss to college students who attend school out-of-state. But that’s just where the reckoning starts.

Illinois has so many other problems, including: a lopsided state budget; the nation’s largest pension deficit now at $317 billion; an unfriendly relationship with business that chases employers out of the state or sometimes the country; and new taxes and fees on just about anything that moves.

Perhaps the biggest problem is our public school funding system that’s reliant on local property taxes where disparity continues to grow from the haves and have nots. To make up for it, the state relies on growing taxes on the residents and businesses who remain.

And we have learned from the pandemic that remote working is another threat to the state. Millions of people not tied to the service industry can work just about anywhere.

Then there is Pritzker’s reasoning for our population loss: college students who leave Illinois and don’t come back. Some 48.4% of high school graduates heading to a four-year college in 2017 enrolled in one outside the state, according to an Illinois Board of Higher Education report. In 2002, that rate was 29.3%.

There are positive reasons people move to states such as Texas, Colorado and North Carolina: job opportunities, lower taxes and business-friendly governments. Compare those advantages to what is driving people from Illinois: poor employment opportunities, high housing costs and tax policy, according to an Illinois Policy study.

So, what’s at stake now for losing a congressional seat? Fewer federal dollars, less representation in Congress and the loss of another Electoral College vote, from 20 to 19. And our problems remain.

Nothing will change unless state leaders take these problems seriously and heed this call to action. Illinois leaders need to:

  • Make Illinois colleges and universities more inviting and affordable. Losing nearly 50% of our brightest young people to out-of-state schools is inexcusable.
  • Illinois government must make the state more business friendly, allowing the creation of jobs and reducing taxes on employers. This will also help attract new business and employees to the state.
  • The public school funding system needs to allow every student to get a solid education no matter where they live. And funding for public education needs to be less reliant on local property taxes.
  • Fix the pension debt problem. The state has pushed much of this problem to municipalities to solve on their own, placing even more of the burden on local taxpayers, those who are most at risk of leaving Illinois.

With Michael Madigan in retirement after decades at the seat of political power as House speaker, we have an opportunity for change. We hope the state’s leaders take advantage and learn lessons from our country’s more prosperous states. It’s our chance to make a difference.

If not, another reckoning is on the horizon.