Column: Dear Indiana and Florida: Our population loss, your gain

Column: Dear Indiana and Florida: Our population loss, your gain

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Kristen McQueary

It was a close competition between Indiana and Florida: Which state in 2018 attracted the most Illinois residents for relocation?

Indiana won. Nearly 26,000 Illinois tax filers (including their dependents) moved to Indiana in 2018, new Internal Revenue Service data shows. Out with Chicago-style pizza and beef sandwiches. In with pork tenderloin and sugar cream pie, two Hoosier staples.

But Florida beaches beckoned too. Nearly 24,000 Illinoisans moved to Florida in 2018. Some Indiana residents and Floridians moved to Illinois, mind you, but not enough to make up the difference. Texas was the third most popular destination for Illinoisans, followed by California, Wisconsin, Missouri and Arizona.

What do Indiana and Florida boast that Illinois does not? Lower taxes, well-funded pension systems, balanced budgets and, in Florida’s case, sunshine and ocean views. Who can compete with that? Uncle! Uncle!

You’ve seen the numbers. U.S. census data released in December showed Illinois’ net population since 2013 has dropped by more than 223,000 residents, roughly the equivalent of Naperville and Bolingbrook wiped off the map. That number includes births, deaths, domestic and international migration.

The IRS numbers are a separate data set and a year behind the census calculations, but they also show the growing gap between people leaving Illinois and not enough domestic migration and new births to make up the difference. The U-Hauls are not headed this way. Gee. Wonder why.

What gets lost in the numbers is the ripple effect. Those 223,000 people won’t be paying taxes in Illinois -- not income, sales, property, gasoline, alcohol, cigarette, cannabis, you name it. They won’t be buying homes or cars or groceries or home goods. They’re not raising kids here, buying school supplies or signing them up for sports. They’re not opening new businesses or expanding existing ones. Just about every corner of the Illinois economy is affected by population loss. Even the funeral business.

“Every year more and more people choose not to return to Illinois, even to be buried,” a funeral director emailed us. “I don’t handle their funeral, the men who make burial vaults don’t make them or service them, grave diggers don’t dig their graves, and florists don’t sell flowers. That’s just a short list.”

Also suffering economic loss from population drops: local churches, charities and nonprofits that attract in-state donors. Even, gulp, newspapers.

“I just got done canceling our Tribune subscription that I have been reading since I was about 10,” a departing Lake County resident emailed last summer. He moved his family to Texas, even though they lost more than half of their investment in their home due a sale price that hadn’t caught up to its previous worth.

“I won’t miss the next new tax, the next law (that makes) running a business more expensive or complicated, the next story on all the debts of the state and local governments with no plans on fixing them,” he wrote. “Also my share of the Illinois pension debt becomes zero.”

Ouch. May I interest you in a Tribune digital subscription? So you can stay informed of the wreckage from afar?

While Illinois always has lost population to sun-drenched destinations such as Florida, it usually managed to offset the losses with new residents and growing families. But the outflow of Illinois residents just keeps climbing. And they’re taking wealth with them: Financial website Wirepoints reports that the average adjusted gross income of those who left in 2018 was about $85,000. Those who moved to Illinois had incomes of around $66,000. Collectively, that’s a lot of lost spending power.

What to do about the Illinois Exodus? Vote for fiscally responsible candidates throughout state and local government who are informed about pension pressure driving up property taxes. Candidates who understand that the Illinois model of tax-and-spend state and local government is broken. Candidates who reject efforts to make middle-income families vulnerable to tax hikes.

The fact that state lawmakers put on the upcoming November ballot a proposal for a graduated state income tax, which eventually will hit the middle class, while they also blocked grassroots campaigns for votes on redistricting reform, term limits and the Illinois Constitution’s pension clause is an injustice that cannot be overstated. Efforts to squeeze taxpayers get shepherded through the General Assembly. Efforts to hold the General Assembly accountable get stomped.

It’s no wonder residents get tired of that boot on their throats and vote with their feet. If 2020 doesn’t bring the reform needed to stabilize Illinois finances, expect to read of another Illinois Exodus in the next round of census and IRS numbers. Also perfect that sugar cream pie recipe: butter, sugar, milk, heavy cream, vanilla. It’s also called Hoosier pie. You’ll need it for the block party.

Kristen McQueary is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.

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