Illinois still a basket case, but improving


When Emerson College unveiled its latest Illinois poll last week, its press release included three “Key Takeaways.” At the very top of its list was this: “Fifty-two percent (52%) majority of voters think things in Illinois are on the wrong track, while 48% think things are headed in the right direction.”
The college is based in Massachusetts, a liberal state with a popular Republican governor. A recent poll taken in Massachusetts by Suffolk University found that 59 percent believed their state was on the right track while 33 percent said it was on the wrong track.
So, while I can easily see why residents of Massachusetts would highlight an inverse opinion in Illinois as bad news, that poll result was actually pretty darned good news.
Way back in 2008, when Rod Blagojevich was nearing his fateful end, the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute found that 75 percent of Illinoisans believed Illinois was heading in the wrong direction, while 12.4 percent believed it was going in the right direction.
In 2010, the Simon Institute had the wrong/right track result at 81-11 percent. In 2011, the Institute poll pegged the numbers at 75-15 wrong/right and it stayed there for a while. The Simon Poll’s 2012 wrong/right results were 70-20. The 2013 Simon Poll had it at 75-16.
In early 2015, shortly after Republican Bruce Rauner was sworn in as governor, Illinoisans’ mood improved a little.  “Only” 63 percent said the state was headed in the wrong direction, while 22 percent said it was moving in the right direction.
By 2016, after all heck had broken loose in Springfield amid Rauner’s refusal to negotiate a budget until he won his war with organized labor, things got even worse. The Simon Poll found that a whopping 84 percent of the state’s voters believed Illinois was off on the wrong track, while only 10 percent thought it was following the right path. The Simon Poll numbers were essentially unchanged two years later (84-9) as Rauner was finishing up his first and only term.
Illinoisans have overwhelmingly agreed on one thing over the years: Illinois sucks. It’s quite a remarkable consensus.
And it isn’t like people were totally wrong. We have more than our share of crooked politicians. We had three governors in a row who made a complete mess of things. Our former House Speaker had more concentrated power than anyone in our state’s history, and he often used his office to play other people and institutions for sport. Issues were ignored, everything seemed to be in decay, there was never enough money to achieve basic goals.
Entire cottage industries sprang up to take advantage of Illinoisans’ collective hatred of their state by giving them often-massaged data to feed their rage. Everything is bad all the time to these groups. “Death spiral,” was one of their favorite phrases to describe Illinois’ predicament. People have been paid quite well to live in nice homes and tell everyone else that their lives were miserable because of state employee pensions, or whatever the current bogeyman was.
Then something happened which upset a lot of people at the time, but turned everything around. A super-majority of Republicans and Democrats overrode Gov. Rauner’s veto of an income tax hike. Oh, there was such blinding, white-hot rage from the well-paid doomsayers at the time. But I think they knew the gig was up.
It took some years to pay off the crushing short-term debts incurred under Rauner and his predecessors, but the state started to right itself again thanks to that extra revenue. After some decent governance, the “death spiral” people have mostly moved on to opposing COVID-19 mitigations, or complaining about Critical Race Theory, or whatever.
Because of that increased tax revenue, our pension debt, while high, has become far more manageable. Businesses and not-for-profit organizations which do much of the actual physical work of government don’t have to worry about not being paid in a timely manner. Subsequent tax hikes on motor fuel and gaming expansion and legalizing cannabis have provided needed funds to fix our decrepit roads and bridges, repair our dilapidated public buildings and invest in neglected communities.
Again, I don’t strongly disagree with popular sentiment over the years. Illinois has often been a basket case, even without the deliberately provocative exaggerations from the doom and gloom types. And I also agree with what appears to be current sentiment that Illinois is slightly more negative than positive. We still have a ways to go. But, at least now, the destination might possibly be in sight.
It sure would be nice to live in a more “normal” state.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax. com.