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Olson: Why we think Illinois stinks

Illinoisans say that Illinois stinks.

In a poll released this week by the Gallup organization, Illinois leads the country in the percentage of its residents who said their state is the worst place to live in the country.

One in four Illinoisans surveyed said Illinois is the worst. Last out of 50. The Land of Stinkin’, a train wreck on the prairie. People in Rhode Island and Connecticut are pretty down on their states, too, but only 18 percent of them said they were the worst.

There’s no accounting for taste, I guess. If you like mountains or the oceanside, or cold, snowy winter days are a deal-breaker, then maybe Illinois isn’t the place for you.

But the worst state in the country? That never even occurred to me.

Still, we’re losing people, either mentally or physically. Of the people who were my classmates and friends at the University of Illinois in the 1990s, most of them have left the state and will probably never come back. Two live in Texas. One is in South Dakota. A few are in California – or were last I knew. One lives in Dublin, Ireland.

All of them were Illinois natives.

What’s wrong?: There’s been a years-long drumbeat of negativity about Illinois.

So many stories have been written that include “Illinois” and “worst in the nation.”

Illinois’ high taxes and unemployment have people fleeing the state, we’re told – just look at how many people used United Van Lines to move away.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan is portrayed as an emperor-like figure who rules us at his whim. Illinois’ kazillion-dollar unfunded pension liability is going to crush us, but reducing any promises to pensioners would be an unconscionable act of bad faith.

Neighboring states Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa are held up as so much better. They’re going to steal away Illinois businesses, because they’re much better places to live and work, and then we’ll all be sorry. Or then we’ll all be Hoosiers or Hawkeyes or Badgers, which might be the same thing.

Those states are all nice places, but if they were so swell, they wouldn’t be trying to play beggar-thy-neighbor to try to lure away Illinois businesses. They would already have enough of their own. Indianapolis, Des Moines, Milwaukee – those would be the “it” cities in the Midwest. But they’re not.

The problem, however, is that when outsiders hear that we think our state is the worst in the country … well, they probably assume we ought to know. And why would they want to join us?

Will it change?: Maybe the fact that so many people say this is the worst state in the country is a sign enough people are angry and we can start to turn things around.

Our government is a big part of the problem.

Another Gallup poll released this month found Illinoisans have the lowest level of trust in state government. Only 28 percent of us trust state government “a great deal” or “a fair amount.” The next-lowest scores are 40 percent of people.

That’s no surprise. Two governors in a row wound up in federal prison. Legislators broke their word to make an income tax increase temporary, and even with the increase the financial problems are still dire and unsolved.

What’s most depressing is that people will go out and vote back in the same jokers who did it.

Going forward, we have to accept the reality that we either have to tax people more or spend less on government.

We can’t keep trying to have it both ways the way we have tried to for years.  

People want government programs, good jobs with good wages and comfortable retirements that begin as early as possible.

We’d also like someone else to pay for it. But it shouldn’t be senior citizens or state retirees – we don’t want to tax retirement income. Taxing the middle class isn’t fair, we need them to buy things. It’s no fair to tax the poor, but if you try to tax millionaires, they’ll leave the state (sure they will.) If we tax businesses more, they won’t stay or expand.

Try to cut government spending, and you hear that it will hurt our most vulnerable residents – the poor, the elderly, and the children. Or you’re accused of not caring about pre-K education, or whatever pet project is up for consideration.

Illinoisans don’t pay enough to support the size of government we have, and the pension crisis is evidence that we haven’t paid the cost of government we’ve already used.

At the local level, we have almost 7,000 units of local government, the most of any state in the country. There is too much taxpayer-supported bureaucracy, too many governments and government jobs. We can’t afford it all any more.

Remember that the next time someone tells you the state’s 1,432 townships, which perform functions that could easily be assumed by other local governments, are so essential.

Even if we got rid of all of them, Illinois would still have the most units of government of any state in the country.

Not the worst: Still, there’s so much more to a place than its government problems.

Every state (yes, even Texas) has problems of its own.

Illinois has some of the best infrastructure of any state in the Midwest. There’s plenty of water to drink, some of the best farmland in the country. We move cargo all over the country, by rail, air and water.

There’s a world class city, there’s an educated workforce, and it’s beautiful in the springtime.

We’re not even close to the worst. Now we just need to prove it to more of our own people.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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