But the state's IOUs are getting to resemble Confederate money printed on the back side of used wallpaper in Vicksburg. It's not quite being besieged by Grant, let alone Venezuela. But it's not good.
Let's start with a cautionary tale for single-payer health care.
The state owes Illinois dentists $225 million, and some of those bills go back 23 months, according to the Illinois State Dental Society. Some dentists in college towns or other areas with lots of state workers are selling their receivables to keep their heads above water. Others are asking state employees to pay in cash, says Ronald Lynch, a dentist in Jacksonville.Yes, there are still people on employer insurance plans and some people might have coverage through the Obamacare exchanges, but if you're practicing any kind of medicine near Springfield or any of the state universities, you're a harbinger of what happens when the Medicare "trust fund" runs out of money.
"There are dentists who have to do this just to survive," says Dr. Lynch. "It's very stressful." Dr. Lynch, who hasn't asked for such cash payments, says he is owed about $250,000, forcing him to forgo a salary so he can continue to pay bills and his employees.In the university towns, there's more than the falling birth rates at work. DeKalb looks seedier these days, despite the new residence hall on campus and a number of blighted buildings along Lincoln Highway coming down. I suppose we should be grateful it's not Charleston.
Health care is the capital's biggest employer apart from the state itself. Springfield's two hospital systems -- Memorial Health and HSHS St. John's -- say they together are owed more than $200 million by the state. Edgar Curtis, Memorial Health's chief executive, says he has put off a $100 million capital-expansion project because of the uncertainty. "We hate to see projects being shelved because of what is going on at the state level," he says.
Over the past two years, Eastern Illinois University has received at least $53 million less than it would have if the average funding levels of the prior five years had held.But the exodus includes all parts of the state, and the formerly agricultural and industrial areas may be doing even worse than the college towns.
Professors in the chemistry department haven't been able to print in color since the department's printer ran out of yellow ink a year ago. Biochemistry professor Mary Konkle says she decided to leave her tenured position when she no longer had funding to order equipment or chemicals for her research.
"It wasn't my plan to just be here a couple of years and move on," she says.
Less than a decade ago, university enrollment was at its peak of 12,000. Then it began slipping by a few hundred a year. The decline picked up speed after the state's budget troubles began in 2015. Since then, enrollment has dropped by about 1,500 to 7,400 last fall.
Rallies and press coverage about the state budget mess raised fears the school might close, keeping students away. Administrators say it is doubtful that they will have even 7,000 students this fall.
In Charleston, where the university is based, empty storefronts litter Lincoln Avenue, the main thoroughfare running by campus. Jerry's Pizza, a staple for professors and students since 1978, closed last October, citing the university's shrinking population. "For Rent" signs are posted outside rows of apartments that cater to students, with one ad offering free iPad minis to students who sign a lease.
"Had we had 12,000 students here, the businesses would probably all still be here," says John Inyart, a former Charleston mayor who owns an auto-repair shop across from the university's main hall. He has had to cast his net wider for customers as faculty and students dwindle, he says.
"Any community that had a university was kind of like Teflon. You had that stability in your community, with stable good paying jobs," says Cindy White, chairwoman of the local chamber of commerce. "Well, now, that's not so much anymore."
Some social-services agencies have given up on receiving state funding. Others have closed entirely, leaving some rural communities without mental-health clinics, domestic-violence shelters and drug-treatment clinics, despite an opioid crisis gripping some towns downstate.Revenues under the current set of taxes are insufficient to cover the state's commitments, but higher taxes (and there are Chicago area Democrats who would like to tax businesses for the privilege of doing business) are likely to have the effect of driving more people out of the state. There's no reason, for instance, why the Board of Trade and the Mercantile Exchange couldn't make their markets in Milwaukee or Indianapolis.
Illinois has lost more residents than any other American state for the third year in a row, with 90% of the state's counties seeing a drop in population, shrinking the state's tax base. In 2016, a net of 37,508 people left, according to census data, putting the population at its lowest in nearly a decade.
Illinois was one of just eight states in the country, and the only Midwestern one, to lose residents last year.
"It's not just the budget crisis; it's that people don't have any confidence in what the state is going to do next," says Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan Chicago-based government-watchdog group backed by business leaders. "There is fear of an enormous tax increase. The uncertainty is driving people from the state."
In 2014, the state's gross domestic product was growing faster than any other bordering state. In 2016, Illinois grew slower than all bordering states except for Iowa, with which it was tied.
We have much to look forward to.