Bye, bye, Illinois.
So said more than 114,000 residents of the Land of Lincoln in just one year, from July 1, 2015 to July 1, 2016. Illinois suffered a net loss of 37,508 people — more than any other state in the Union.
You can bet why, and maybe some explanations are beyond our state’s control. Winter, for one.
But states with worse weather lost fewer people. And states with equally high or even higher levels of unemployment saw relatively fewer residents running for the exits. Even states with higher taxes fared better. The Illinois exodus, in fact, picked up pace at the beginning of this year after the state income tax dropped.
Why then are people leaving? And why, if you believe a poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, would 47 percent of registered voters like to leave?
Here’s a thought: When it comes to responsible governance, Illinois is a joke. And that gets around.
There is not another state in the Union that has gone without a budget for nearly 18 months. Our state’s stack of unpaid bills is up to more than $11.3 billion, more than the total budget of 14 other states. Illinois’ pension debt shot up this year to $130 billion. Social services agencies have cut back or closed. Businesses big and small, which dislike uncertainty, have to wonder where this is going with respect to future taxes and regulations.
And we have a Republican governor and Democratic Legislature who barely talk to each other.
Those are broad strokes. So let’s consider how Springfield’s failure to govern has played out in one specific area: Higher education. The quality of public universities is at the heart of why many people choose to live in one state or another, and Illinois has long been known for some of the best. But the state Legislature has chipped away at funding for universities for two decades, and Gov. Bruce Rauner came into office saying he wanted to cut higher ed funding by a third.
Then came the end of state budgets. Since then, money for higher education has been sporadic, unpredictable and insufficient. Current funding will end with the expiration of the state’s stopgap spending plan on Dec. 31, and the universities have no idea when they will see more funding. They are in crisis mode: freezing hiring, cutting staff and delaying maintenance.
When a state cannot be bothered to write a budget, a public university cannot plan. It cannot offer certainty about tuition or faculty pay or what programs will continue on.
Should anybody be surprised, then, that Illinois this fall suffered a net outmigration of 16,000 higher ed students? Our state is losing bright young people to other states. They will embark on careers and offer their talents elsewhere.
A preliminary report this week by the Illinois Board of Higher Education reveals that enrollment is dropping in all centers of higher education in Illinois — public universities, community colleges and private colleges, which typically depend on state scholarship aid for some of their students. Southern Illinois University at Carbondale suffered the biggest loss — 6½ percent of its enrollment, including 11 percent of its graduate students.
As tuition rises and university finances grow shakier, students and their families are hesitating to enroll at an Illinois school that might cut back on classes or even shut down, making it hard or impossible to graduate. As Illinois State University President Larry Dietz points out, this is the time of year when students and their families are making decisions about where to enroll in the fall.
Financial aid is contingent on a state budget, but nobody knows if and when there will be one. The stopgap budget that expires in a couple of weeks provided money to pay off last year’s Monetary Assistant Program scholarships, but included no such funding for this year.
Gov. Bruce Rauner won’t budge on a new budget until Democrats in the Legislature — that would be House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton — agree to two or three non-budgetary reforms he has demanded, such as term limits on legislative leaders.
Madigan — and, to a lesser extent, Cullerton — won’t budge until Rauner drops his demands.
And while everybody plays their power games, tens of thousands of Illinois residents are doing more than budging. They are high-tailing it out of here.