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Jacob Lane: Downstate Illinois needs more advocacy, not secession

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Think it’s time to add another star to our nation’s flag? New Illinois does.  

In an effort to separate from Chicago’s voter majority, the nonpartisan, self-described educational nonprofit aims to carve out a new state composed of the remainder of the Land of Lincoln.

New Illinois’ goal is an escape from what it deems “a tyrannical form of government” and a future state where residents will be able to “experience a government representing their constitutional rights.”

As a resident of downstate Illinois, I see where they’re coming from. 

Illinois is struggling under one of the nation’s highest tax burdens and boasts the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the country. Decades of fiscal mismanagement by state leaders have taken a toll on the state’s population, cutting critical tax revenue for an already cash-strapped state by billions. 

If something doesn’t change, Illinois could soon find itself shrinking to its smallest congressional delegation in living memory. 

But the answer to such dysfunction shouldn’t be to cut and run through some initiative that has next to no likelihood of being successful. Instead, downstate Illinoisans, the primary backers of New Illinois, should be winning over hearts and minds, leveraging existing infrastructure and legislative mechanisms to turn Illinois around. 

The idea of “state-splitting” isn’t novel — similar partition proposals have been either discussed or attempted via referendum in states suich as California, Colorado and Maine in recent years. Yet, all have come up short to date, largely due to the massive legal and political hurdles involved. 

As designed, the current plan for carving up Illinois is vague and confusing. According to New Illinois’ website, “Old Illinois would include Chicago and whatever areas wanted to maintain the status quo.”

Along with failing to define “status quo,” the website also leaves ambiguous what would happen to counties not bordering Cook County that wish to remain part of Old Illinois. 

Consider the political landscape: In the last two presidential and gubernatorial contests, multiple counties outside Chicago and the surrounding suburbs voted each time for the top of the Democratic ticket. While New Illinois is neither a Republican nor Democratic initiative, most of its support comes from GOP grassroots activists. 

If these Democratic-leaning counties, some of which border states such as Iowa and Missouri, stick with Old Illinois, which is expected to consist mostly of northeast Illinois, what happens to these noncontiguous territories? 

Illinois could end up looking less like two separate states and more like a mini British Empire. 

Then there’s the financial question of how the central and southern parts of the state would sustain their social programming and infrastructures without the tax revenue that comes from the Chicago area.  

According to a study from the Paul Simon Institute, Illinoisans outside Chicago receive as much as $2.88 for every $1 paid in state taxes, while those in Chicago and its suburbs receive from 60 to 98 cents for every $1 paid. That means that Cook County and the counties that surround it end up paying more and getting less in terms of social services than their downstate compatriots. 

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