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Reeder: Why isn't Illinois more competitive in attracting jobs?

Beside me, a pair of little feet stepped across the line from Arizona to New Mexico, and then to Colorado and Utah.

My 7-year-old daughter, Gracie, giggled and said, “I’m in a whole different state than you.”

Welcome to Four Corners Monument, the only place where four U.S. states meet. Earlier this month, I took my family there for vacation.

Gracie’s younger sisters, Anna and Caitlin, hopped across borders, too, hollering state names like youngsters playing hopscotch on a school playground.

Watching their sandals clap against the concrete, it reminded me of the ease with which both jobs and individuals now move from state to state.

We live in a mobile society.

Unfortunately, Illinois has failed to create a business environment that reflects this economic reality.

There seems to be a mindset among some in our political class that well-paying jobs are a permanent part of the Prairie State – sort of like Starved Rock, Lake Michigan or the Mississippi River.

They are viewed as a source of taxes for government – not a wellspring of wealth for ordinary Illinoisans.

But I know the transitory nature of jobs all too well.

I grew up in what was once a prosperous community – Galesburg. Lawn-Boy lawnmowers, Admiral refrigerators, Butler steel buildings and Evinrude boat motors all rolled off the town’s assembly lines when I was growing up.

In the 1980s, there were storm clouds on the horizon, but for the most part folks thought the good times could never end.

But Illinois wasn’t competitive with other states and those jobs slipped away.

Flash-forward 30 years, and you’ll find the town no longer makes refrigerators, boat motors, steel buildings or lawnmowers.

The parking lots of those abandoned factories are filled with weeds.

In some cases, factory owners up and moved production to Sun Belt states with better labor laws. Other times, the jobs simply slipped away to competitors able to produce elsewhere at a lower cost.

Now, the same thing is happening throughout Illinois.

Illinois is not competitive. The evidence is clear:

• According to an annual study conducted by United Van Lines, Illinois’ out-migration ranking was first in the nation in 2011 – the year of the massive income-tax increases for individuals and businesses. In 2012, we ranked No. 2 – just behind New Jersey, which had just been whacked by Hurricane Sandy.

Many of Illinoisans wanted to stay here. But their jobs left, and they found themselves foraging for work elsewhere.

• According to the Tax Foundation, Illinois has the fourth-highest corporate income tax in the nation.

When companies look for places to expand, that tax deters them from choosing Illinois.

More importantly, it’s an impediment for smaller businesses that want to grow. Money that could be reinvested in the enterprise to create more jobs is instead sucked away into government coffers.

• The state’s regulatory environment makes it difficult for business to thrive here. For example, for every hundred dollars in payroll, Texas employers pay 39 cents for workers’ compensation insurance; their Illinois counterparts pay $1.10.

Midwestern states such as Michigan and Indiana recently adopted right-to-work laws that leave it up to individual workers to decide whether they want to join a union. But Illinois remains among those 26 states where forced unionism is allowed. This, too, deters businesses from investing in more jobs here.

As the state has hemorrhaged jobs, Gov. Pat Quinn’s approach has been to slap on Band-Aids. He’s cut sweetheart deals with the likes of Sears and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange when they have threatened to leave Illinois. But he has done nothing to improve the state’s overall business climate.

In other words, if you have the clout, government may listen.

Otherwise, it is tough luck.

Until Illinois addresses its underlying problems – so all businesses and individuals have the opportunity to prosper – we are destined to have jobs and people going elsewhere – like youngsters playing hopscotch on a map of the U.S.

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at sreeder@illinoispolicy.org.

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