BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Chicago Sun-Times Columnist
Last summer, I was sitting in the waiting room of a state outreach center and witnessed the angry tirade of a woman waiting to appeal an unemployment insurance issue. The people in her vicinity, and the person on the other end of her cell phone, got quite a monologue.
She railed about rotten schools, high taxes, smoking restrictions and just about everything else under the sun. Defiantly declaring her independence from the State of Illinois, she vowed to leave as soon as she could afford to roll her belongings across the state line.
Needless to say, I was stunned. Everyone knows Illinois is in bad shape, but who really goes through the hassle of moving away?
Nevertheless, in the last few months, I’ve heard more and more people frustrated with Illinois’ poor prospects seriously wonder aloud if there’s safe harbor outside the Land of Lincoln.
Sure, we like to think it’s as bad here as it is anywhere else, but no — we’re way worse off.
This week, the State Budget Solutions Project, a nonpartisan budget-reform-minded think tank, published its second annual State Deficit Report showing which states are doing all right and which ones, like Illinois, are on the precipice of — if not already dealing with — disaster.
Our state debt, including pension obligations, is a number so huge it’s difficult to understand: $280,595,828,000 — more than $280 billion. That’s more than the gross domestic product of Colombia, the country with 35th largest economy in the world.
Hey, at least we’re not California. It’s more than $612 billion in the hole, not that it’s any comfort to us. But we get to round out the country’s top five most indebted states, along with New York, Texas and New Jersey. All 50 states are in over their heads —to the tune of more than $4 trillion.
Illinois’ budget gap, second only to California’s, is $13.5 billion, a number that comes as a surprise only to people who haven’t been involved in a nonprofit organization’s struggle to squeeze enough money out of Springfield to keep the lights on.
And while there are only 10 states with a lower maximum personal income tax rate than Illinois, there are no fewer than 40 states with a maximum corporate income tax lower than our 9.5 percent rate.
Now that I’ve got you good and depressed, you may be wondering where to take solace. Well, of the 43 states that have a better economic outlook than us, the top five are Utah, South Dakota, Virginia, Wyoming and Idaho.
Though I could see myself heading out to Utah to hike in the mountains and ride horses on vacation, it’s hard to imagine anything dragging me away from my home state. But others, including business interests, are far less sentimental. You need look no further than the battles being waged to keep businesses such as Sears, Caterpillar, Motorola and now CME Group planted in the state.
If our reputation as a politically dysfunctional state that can’t pay its bills keeps getting worse — just last month Illinois was ranked as having the third-worst business climate in the country by Development Counsellors International, a New York-based economic development marketing firm — the bottom will soon fall out.
The impoverished or unemployed won’t be able to flee — it’ll be the middle- and upper-class folks who can afford to avoid going down with the ship. As it stands, Illinois doesn’t look ready to get its act together, and ever more people are seeing what lies beyond Illinois’ borders as downright tantalizing.