Proposal to make Chicago a state shows Illinois divide
Whether it's the state's shaky finances, its recent tax hike or strict gun laws, downstate Illinois knows it can always vent its frustration by blaming Chicago.
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Cook County – which with 5 million residents is the nation's second most-populous county – is the state's economic engine and key tax generator, providing substantial contributions to the state's other 101 counties for everything from schools to roads, colleges and universities, and prisons.Skip to next paragraph
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The Chicago area last year generated 81.6 percent of the $652 billion in gross state product, according to Lawrence Msall, president of the Chicago-based Civic Federation, a nonpartisan think tank specializing in tax policy and government research. In 2009, $3.5 billion – some 40 percent – of the $8.7 billion the state collected in income tax was attributable to Cook County, which also was responsible for roughly 36 percent, or $2.2 billion, of the $6.2 billion the state generated in sales taxes, Msall said.
"There's no getting around that Chicago and Cook County are the goose that lays many golden eggs distributed to downstate counties," said Jim Nowlan, senior fellow of the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs. "Without Chicago and Cook County, the state would be a much poorer entity than it is now."
Nevertheless, the idea is tempting for some folks in southern Illinois, much of which is closer geographically and culturally to St. Louis and Louisville than to Chicago.
Mike Nikonovich, who owns a winery and brewhaus in touristy Grafton, north of St. Louis, said he'd gladly toast a split. He sees the Chicago area as a nexus of wasteful spending and wrong-minded thinking, viewing downstaters as "just all farmers."
"My God, how nice would that [divorce] be? I don't think anybody's taking it seriously, but it'd be nice to dream. Let them sink, and we'll swim," said Nikonovich.
Others, while sympathetic, worry about the possible fallout.
In southwestern Illinois' St. Clair County, Republican-leaning corn and soybean grower Bob Biehl echoed the frustration of the measure's two authors but said he doesn't think excising Chicago and Cook County is the way to address it.
"I tend to agree we don't have a prayer for many good policies in this area. If it's not good for the public in that area [of Cook County], we just lose the vote," said Biehl, 42. "But to say, 'We're not happy with this, so we're just gonna branch off' – I don't agree with that. We all just need to get along."
What the legislators don't mention is that the state has grappled with the idea before – to no avail.
In 1925, Cook County considered dumping Illinois to become its own state named, well, Chicago. While one downstate senator proclaimed the Chicago area "has been a nuisance in the last few years" and should be expelled, the push fizzled.
And there was a bid in 1861 – during the infancy of the nation's own Civil War – by Illinois' southern swath long known as "Little Egypt" to split from Illinois, citing cultural and political differences.
As for the latest effort, Gov. Pat Quinn could only shake his head.
"We're all in this together," said Quinn. "The idea of separating out and dividing us is a bum way to go. It's definitely not the Illinois way to go."
Associated Press writers Deanna Bellandi and Nomaan Merchant in Chicago contributed to this report.