Illinois leaders should heed the message they got from Caterpillar last week — take more action to right the state's ailing economy. Now.
Caterpillar fired off another complaint about Illinois' business climate last week as part of a message that Illinois sites were out of the running for a new plant that would employ 1,400.
The iconic Illinois company's message was both a further indication of the seriousness of concerns over the state's dreadful fiscal problems and business conditions and a warning that political leaders need to take action.
But Gov. Pat Quinn minimized Caterpillar's complaints in a visit to the University of Illinois campus Thursday.
The global equipment maker, with its headquarters in Peoria, told Peoria County leaders in an email that they were out of the running for a plant to be relocated from Japan because of logistical factors such as access to ports and local labor markets.
But even if Peoria had the right logistics, it wouldn't have gotten the plant anyway, company officials said.
"Please understand that even if your community had the right logistics for this project, Caterpillar's previously documented concerns about the business climate and overall fiscal health of the state of Illinois still would have made it unpractical for us to select your community for this project," the company said in an email, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
Peoria was one of about a dozen Illinois communities bidding for the plant, which apparently will be located in North Carolina.
After Illinois raised income taxes last year, Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman complained about the state's business climate in a widely publicized letter to Quinn that many interpreted as a threat to pull the company headquarters out of Illinois. Oberhelman later said the company has no plans to leave.
On the UI campus to announce a center for wounded veteran students last Thursday, Quinn defended the state's business climate, saying that Caterpillar's decision was about the lack of a deepwater port, not about the state's economy.
"Caterpillar is a fine company, and it had a great year last year. As a matter of fact, they had their best year in 64 years," he said, adding that its new plant "needed a deep-sea ocean port. The last time I checked, we don't have much oceanfront property in Illinois."
Quinn pointed out that both Ford and Chrysler recently announced employment increases at their Illinois plants as evidence.
In the year since Caterpillar's initial complaints, the governor signed into law some changes in the state's workers' compensation system intended to cut costs, and the governor and legislative leaders say they'll work on Medicaid and pension reforms in the next year.
Improving the business climate can help the state improve its economy. But the fact is that Illinois business leaders want some assurance that the political will exists to make the painful decisions needed for eventual recovery. The time to start showing the political will is now.