Here’s a scary number for you:
In the last 16 years, Illinois has lost 35 percent of its manufacturing jobs. That’s about 304,000 jobs, more than the population of any city in the state other than Chicago.
That number alone, cited by a business leader this week in a lunchtime speech before the City Club, tell the story of our state’s poor business climate and sputtering economy. It sounds an alarm. It reminds us once again — if anybody still needs reminding — that our elected officials have failed us miserably and time is running short to set things right.
For going on two years now, our state has not even had a full-year (let alone balanced) budget, which creates the kind of financial uncertainly that business people deplore and sends them looking for the exits. But our state’s troubles go beyond that, with crippling pension obligations, an overly burdensome worker’s comp system, insufficient tax revenue and a public school system in Chicago — our state’s beating economic heart — in desperate need of a fairer share of state education revenue.
On the day after the Nov. 8 elections, we are assured by those in the know, big things finally could happen in Springfield as partisan politics give way to good public policy. Look then, we are told, for some kind of grand bargain between Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic leaders of the Legislature, one that stresses compromise — that lost word — over ideology or, for that matter, hard feelings.
Our simple message today is that they must come through. Because “could happen” won’t cut it. Because big things must happen before the year is out. Because, as the loss of manufacturing jobs shows, time really is running out before proud Illinois becomes a sad backwater state.
In his speech before the City Club, Greg Baise, president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, hammered away at how the loss of manufacturing jobs is destroying the middle class. He also urged specific tax and regulator reforms to solve the problem. We can’t agree with all his solutions — Eliminate the estate tax? Really? — but we agree on the problems and share his sense of urgency.
We don’t see eye to eye with Baise in his disdain for a higher minimum wage, for example, not when people who work full-time can’t pay their rent. But we do agree that a far better long-term solution is to create a well balanced mixed economy that, among other priorities, protects and grows manufacturing jobs. The paychecks are generally much better.
“People who worked for manufacturers were the heart of the middle class,” Baise said. “They saved for down payments to buy homes. They were able to raise a family. You didn’t need an advanced degree to make a good living. You needed a good work ethic and a sense of pride in what you produced.”
Granted, some of what ails Illinois, at least with respect to manufacturing, is due to global forces beyond the state’s control. When China’s economy slowed down, Caterpillar’s exports dropped, forcing the farm equipment company to lay off workers. When Mitsubishi stopped selling cars in Russia, it was the last straw for the company’s plant in downstate Bloomington — a plant that enjoyed general state tax breaks and union wage concessions.
But that excuse goes only so far when even neighboring Midwestern states, contending with the same external forces, continue to fare better at retaining and growing manufacturing jobs.
Manufacturers “aren’t necessarily fleeing the state in droves, although many have left,” Baise said. “Instead, when expanding, they do it in other states because they can be more successful.”
In a number of earlier editorials, we have placed much of the blame for our state’s political paralysis on Rauner. The new governor promised to roll right over the evil opposition — that would be House Speaker Mike Madigan — but never had the votes. We still put the bulk of the blame there. All that counterproductive tough talk has left Illinois with nothing but $10 billion in back bills.
But the governor no longer insists on most of his vaunted “turnaround agenda” of pro-business reforms before he’ll agree to a tax increase and other measures, and there is no doubt the Democrats can and should meet him part way. He is right that our state’s business climate is competitively weak. Give the guy something real. Further tweaks to worker’s comp — when and how much an employer must pay a worker who is hurt on the job — would be an excellent start.
Come the day after the Nov. 8 elections, when the dust of political battle settles at least temporarily, we’ll see who is serious about putting what’s best for Illinois above textbook ideology or self-serving politics.
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