Who gets what and why?
That’s the essence of a familiar talking point among downstate voters who insist – as did one McLean resident quoted in a weekend New York Times piece about Illinois’ gubernatorial primary – that Chicago sponges resources from the rest of Illinois.
“Everything that we pay and do supports Chicago,” said Pam Page, a State Farm security analyst. ”Downstate just never seems to get any of the perks or any of the kickbacks.”
The perception is so strong it doesn’t need to be rooted in fact to remain a key plank for those seeking political leverage.
John Jackson and John Foster, of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, respectively, targeted the issue head on in a paper titled “The Politics of Public Budgeting in Illinois.” They published the second edition in May 2021, an update from their July 28 offering.
The first edition considered fiscal 2013, while Gov. Pat Quinn mostly cooperated with legislative Democrats. The update analyzed the following three fiscal years, which included the start of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s tenure. Jackson and Foster called fiscal 2014-2016 “a period of significant political transformation and budgetary conflict. … extended legislative gridlock, which was caused by a fundamental conflict over taxes and the budget.” To put it mildly.
Whereas there are similar conflicts between Atlanta and the rest of Georgia, Northern and Southern California or New York City and the “upstate” region, Jackson and Foster said “what is different or at least exaggerated in Illinois, however, is the extent to which many Illinois leaders emphasize, exploit and exacerbate these regional differences for their own advantage.”
This could mean rallying support by actively campaigning against the supposed evils of the big city and collar counties. An opposite strategy is pursuing statewide office by specifically focusing only on the heavy population centers, knowing winning those votes might be sufficient to carry the day.
But the big takeaway from the policy paper – read it yourself at tinyurl.com/DownstateMoney – is the numbers don’t match the narrative.
“Some parts of downstate Illinois clearly are receiving significantly more in state expenditures than they are paying in state taxes,” the paper surmises. “We can say there is no evidence for one of the most powerful myths in Illinois politics. With four years of data over very different budgetary conditions, it is quite clear that downstate taxes are not being disproportionately siphoned off and spent in the city of Chicago.”
One counter to weaponized misconception is a barrage of facts, but overcoming feelings is rarely as simple as tangible proof.
Rather than ridicule or ignore the misinformed, wise leaders hear complaints and address the underlying emotions that make a person want to believe the lie.