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If Downstate Illinois Seceded

Activists are again asking Congress to split Illinois into two states: Chicago, and everything else.

Photo: Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune

This Saturday, a group of Downstate Illinoisians plans to gather outside the Hancock County Courthouse in Carthage to declare their independence — from Chicago.

They’re members of New Illinois, a secessionist movement founded in 2018 to lobby Congress to make Chicago the 51st U.S. state, which would allow the rest of Illinois to govern itself without the influence of a major city.

“Our state government skews so much in the direction of our largest urban area that policies are passed that are good for Chicago, but not the rest of the state,” said New Illinois’s board chairman G.H. Merritt, who lives in rural Lake County. “When the state doubled the gasoline tax, for example, that affected people outstate more than people in urban areas who take public transportation.”

The rally’s keynote speaker will be state Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, a leader of the legislature’s ultra-conservative Eastern Bloc. Last year, Halbrook introduced a resolution to divide the state, which is currently languishing in the Rules Committee, since it’s never going to win the approval of House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago. The rally will be followed by a list of “grievances against the state of Illinois,” released once a week and modeled on the 27 grievances against King George III in the Declaration of Independence. If you can’t wait that long to hear them, Halbrook’s bill offers a pretty good preview:

“WHEREAS, The City of Chicago is often bailed out by taxpayers in the rest of the State, such as the $221 million bailout for the CPS pension system that was signed into law last year; and

WHEREAS, Numerous counties in the southern and central parts of Illinois are approving resolutions to become sanctuary counties for gun owners, while the City of Chicago has some of the strictest gun laws in the country; and

WHEREAS, The majority of residents in downstate Illinois disagree with City of Chicago residents on key issues such as gun ownership, abortion, immigration, and other policy issues.”

This is not the first time frustrated Downstaters have campaigned to split off from Illinois. In the 1970s, residents of western Illinois, including Carthage, declared themselves “Forgottonia,” as a protest against the state and federal government’s failure to build highways and bridges there.

The current movement, though, is a response to nationwide economic and political trends that have duplicated themselves in Illinois. Urban areas have become more prosperous, more educated, and more Democratic, rural areas less industrialized, more reactionary, and more Republican. Since Cook County contains 40 percent of the state’s population, it’s able to dictate Illinois’s agenda, over the objection of small towns hundreds of miles away.

The New Illinois separatists were especially rankled by the 2010 governor’s election, which Pat Quinn won by carrying four counties, and could have won with Cook County alone. They realized then that they were inhabitants of a Red State trapped inside a Blue State, and started looking for a way out. “There’s a lack of representation outside Cook County,” Merritt said. “After Reynolds v. Sim” — a Supreme Court decision mandating equal representation in state legislative districts — “Sen. Everett Dirksen warned that power would get sucked into a state’s largest urban area.”

At the federal level, rural areas have the Electoral College to protect their interests. But since instituting a similar body at the state level would be unconstitutional, New Illinois would rather blow up the borders we have and establish “a state that represents the rural, small-town, suburban character that is most of Illinois,” Merritt said.

That’s unlikely to happen. Congress hasn’t divided a state since 1863, when it admitted West Virginia, which had seceded from the secessionist state of Virginia. But what would happen if it did? Former state Rep. Bill Mitchell, who introduced a two-state bill in the wake of Quinn’s 2010 election, imagined that an independent Downstate would “resemble Indiana, which has a lower debt, a lower unemployment rate, and a lower deficit.”

Despite the proscriptions of Halbrook’s bill, even New Illinoisans concede that they couldn’t just get rid of Chicago, since the surrounding six counties would probably want to go with the city. The rump state of New Illinois would be less wealthy, less populous, and more conservative, likely sending two Republican senators to D.C. Its population would be 4.5 million, about half the size of Metro Chicago. It would contain the headquarters of two Fortune 500 companies — John Deere and State Farm — compared to 30 up here. Its wealthiest county, Sangamon, would have a lower per capita income than the poorest of Metro Chicago’s six counties, Cook.

Financially, remaining in Illinois is a pretty good deal for Downstate. New Illinois would have more prisons, parks, and colleges, but those are currently paid for in large part by Chicago-area residents. According to a study by Southern Illinois University, the state’s southernmost counties get back $2.81 in tax revenue for every dollar they put in, while Cook County loses 10 cents and the collar counties lose 47 cents.

A two-state solution might be even more financially beneficial for metro Chicago than Downstate. With its extra tax money, the Chicago area could try and build a world-class state university, betting on the idea that academic and athletic talent would be more attracted to Chicago than Champaign. Currently, Chicagoans are more likely to vacation in Wisconsin’s Door County or Michigan’s Harbor Country than Starved Rock or the Garden of the Gods; some may not even notice the separation from a region they rarely visit.

“It’s not just that we’re two different states; we’re from two different planets,” Merritt said.

James Krohe Jr., author of Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves: A Plain-Spoken History of Mid-Illinois, once put it another way to me: “Chicago and Downstate are like conjoined twins, one of whom has a weak heart and is being kept alive at the expense of his stronger sibling. Great swaths of downstate are dying, demographically and economically; parts of the region remain viable only because assorted transfers of wealth from greater Chicago and Washington sustain it in the form of social security and disability checks, crop supports, and university and prison funding.”

Thanks to a mapmakers’ decision 200 years ago, Downstate has to follow Chicago’s gun control laws, and Chicago has to send its tax dollars down south. The most promising New Illinois would be one in both sections of the state learned to live with each other.

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