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Editorial: In four letters, why people leave Cook County: J-O-B-S

Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board


Why did metropolitan Dallas gain 146,238 residents last year while the Chicago area lost 13,286 people? Don’t say, “the weather.” It’s jobs. The promise of a solid paycheck would cover the cost of hats and mittens — or a U-Haul rental to the Texas.

Jobs are everything. The Texas economy is booming; Illinois’ is sort of getting by. You want numbers, we’ve got numbers. Over the past year, Texas employment grew 2.3 percent, while Illinois employment grew 0.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s 285,200 new jobs in Texas vs. 48,700 in Illinois. Jealous yet?

This is one of the best periods in recent U.S. history to look for employment. The national unemployment rate is 4.1 percent with a record-high 6.3 million job openings. The U.S. economic outlook is bright, but Illinois is doing … just OK. Certainly, the Chicago area overall is in decent shape. Yet the state lags, and people are leaving. The unemployment rate in Texas is 4 percent; it’s 4.7 percent in Illinois. And for four years running, Illinois has lost residents. In 2017, Illinois lost a net 33,703 residents, dropping the state to sixth largest, below Pennsylvania. Texas grew. Because jobs are everything.

In today’s episode of “How Illinois undercuts itself,” we focus on some loopy action by members of the Cook County Board — many of whom are forever complaining that their constituents deserve more job options. Keep reading.

There are plenty of differences between Texas and Illinois, but the one to focus on is business friendliness. Pound for pound, Chicago may be able to outshine Dallas as a global business center, which is why Amazon is looking at both cities for a second headquarters. But Texas, with low taxes, low regulatory burdens and functional government, is inviting to employers. Illinois? This state can be hard to love.

The problem with Illinois, as we’ve written many times, is rooted in political dysfunction and a lack of respect for the needs of employers. Executives, entrepreneurs and investors want to play by the rules, not get strangled by them. They don’t want to get fleeced by the tax authorities. And they want to know the rules, and tax burdens, won’t be changed on them. They want certainty. Amazon came up with a smart description for its ideal second headquarters location. The company is looking for a “stable and business-friendly environment and tax structure.”

Here’s an example of when Illinois failed that test: The south suburbs of Cook County compete for jobs against nearby Will County and Indiana. Taxes are lower in both of those other locations, so Cook County has a real estate tax incentive program to lure commercial and industrial property investment. Basically, the county offers long-term property tax cuts for certain projects, in order to level the playing field. But earlier this month, in a sop to labor unions, a majority of the board voted to add onerous requirements to the program that make it more expensive to hire workers for these projects. Thus Cook County destroyed the effectiveness of its own program.

The board’s decision is “maddeningly stupid,” John Watson, the economic development director in South Holland told us. “We don’t have people making good long-term policy decisions. They are always short term and many times have some kind of personal connection.” Watson said South Holland attracted dozens of property deals in recent years through the incentive program, but now he worries the jobs-luring projects will dry up. In fact, he knows it. Investors and employers will take their projects, and jobs, to Will County or Indiana or elsewhere. Maybe to Texas.

By the way, the population decline in the Chicago area isn’t across the board. Cook County lost 20,093 residents last year, but Will County gained population. It’s not hard to see why. Jobs are everything.



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