Editorial | Population drop is complicated

Editorial | Population drop is complicated

A new report argues that the reasons for and the size of the state's population decline are exaggerated.

The good news, according to the Chicago-based Better Government Association, is that, contrary to some reports, people are not leaving Illinois because of increased state income taxes.

The bad news is that people are leaving, but perhaps not as many as some fear, and they are leaving for a variety of reasons, not specifically because of higher state income taxes.

"The effects of well-known negatives in Illinois, such as chronic deficits, unpaid bills and pension shortfalls, are more difficult to quantify. But it's clear there is a reshuffling of the state's demographic deck, occurring in ways that don't fit neatly into a TV attack ad," states a report written by the BGA's Tim Jones.

Jones' report focused on a much-discussed problem that's been the subject of innumerable news reports — Illinois' declining population.

The report attributes much of the rhetorical hand-wringing and blame-laying associated with this issue to this state's brutal partisan politics.

"What is clear, however, is that because this is an election year, a distorted story line about population loss is sure to get elevated to a partisan rant: Somebody running for office in Illinois screwed up big-time," the report states.

There is no question about that. The two gubernatorial candidates — Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrat J.B. Pritzker — each blame the opposition party's policies for contributing to the state's financial woes and reduced standing. They'll be hammering that message home into November with many millions of dollars in radio and television advertisements.

The report noted that Illinois' population of roughly 12.5 million has been declining slowly over recent years. But the report points out that population estimates are often "revised upwards" and that, in any case, the numbers won't be official until after the completion of the 2020 census.

It acknowledges that the "Illinois numbers downturn is troubling," but contends it is "far from a free fall some media reports and partisans suggest."

Coming up with population estimates is a complicated business, made even more so by the mobility of modern society. It's also generally true that attributing a phenomenon to any single factor — an increase in the state income tax — is a fool's errand.

People move or don't move for a variety of reasons. The report cited Minnesota, which has a progressive income tax with tax rates ranging from 5.35 percent on middle-income earners up to 9.85 percent on individuals earning above $156,000, as relatively healthy and prosperous.

But what if Illinois were to adopt a progressive income tax similar to Minnesota's, a move that Pritzker has said he wants to make? What would be the impact here?

It might be altogether different because the conditions in Illinois are far different than those in Minnesota, and not just because of their differing income tax laws. Illinois is effectively bankrupt. Minnesota is on firm financial footing.

Property taxes are not income taxes, but the report asserts that property taxes here are a "significant tax Achilles heel." Maybe some of those moving are attracted by lower property taxes elsewhere.

What about good jobs and new opportunities to create a better life for a family? An unhealthy state like Illinois does not have as much to offer as vibrant states with booming economies do.

No single thing is wrong with Illinois — many things are wrong with Illinois, mostly related to the state's terrible finances.

Living in this state is like living in a house with a faulty foundation that may — or may not — collapse — maybe sooner, maybe later.

People may want to stay for a variety of reasons — family ties, friends, roots in the community — but they're tempted to go elsewhere for a variety of reasons — job prospects, better educational opportunities, climate, taxes (property and income).

Whatever the reason, Illinois is on the wrong side of that divide, and the people in charge need to do something — many things — about it/them.

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