Mark Bennett: Voters in Clark, rural Illinois counties back a split from Chicago

Mark Bennett

Chicago Cubs flags were flown proudly on porches, front-yard flagpoles and dorm room walls throughout downstate Illinois after the club won the World Series in 2016, its first in more than a century.

The bond between the Windy City and the southern portion of the state has it limits, though.

The latest of periodic efforts to separate Chicago and the Cook County region from the rest of Illinois resulted in two dozen downstate counties approving a referendum in the Nov. 3 election to begin the process of making Chicago the 51st state.

Voters in Clark County, directly west of Terre Haute, overwhelmingly backed the referendum 74% to 26% in this fall’s election. The referendum voting appeared to follow party lines, as President Donald Trump carried Clark County with 74.5% of the votes. The referendum passed in most of the other counties also by 70% or higher.

“Most of us feel like our constitutional right to a republic is being violated,” said state Rep. Brad Halbrook, a Shelbyville Republican whose district includes portions of Edgar County.

Halbrook introduced legislation this year to split Illinois into two states, but the Democratic dominated General Assembly would undoubtedly reject.

At least two groups are working to divide Illinois into two states. “Illinois Separation” has nearly 30,000 Facebook followers, while “New Illinois” is a 501c3 nonprofit. “They both want to create a new state from the old state,” Halbrook said, “but there’s just a different pathway to get there.”

This fall’s referendum allows the approving counties to discuss the idea with other counties.

The ballot question asked voters, “Shall Clark County collaborate in discussions with the remaining 101 counties of the State of Illinois, with the exception of Cook County, the possibility of forming a new state and ultimately seeking admission to the Federal Union as the 51st State, pursuant to the provisions of the United States Constitution?”

Those discussions theoretically could initiate one pathway to two separate states. They could even result in eastern Illinois counties being absorbed into Indiana.

Again, theoretically.

New Illinois, which Halbrook said remains neutral on the referendums, envisions a multi-step effort. It would begin with the formation of grassroots county committees, followed by a declaration of independence from Chicago, the publishing of grievances, a constitutional convention, and action by the General Assembly, then Congress and then the president of the United States.

Don’t hold your breath for those dominoes to swiftly fall.

“These types of things take years, not weeks or months,” Halbrook said Wednesday.

He’s optimistic, nonetheless. “There is a pathway. It is possible,” he said. New Illinois uses the formation of West Virginia as its model.

Indeed, the Mountain State came from a split in Virginia. It was the last time Congress approved such a step. It happened over slavery, during the Civil War, 157 years ago.

In Illinois, the argument for separation asserts that Chicago gets outsize influence over taxes, regulations and laws, ranging from policies on guns to abortion and the minimum wage, among others. With 40% of the state’s population living in Cook County and a majority of General Assembly seats coming from its surrounding region, Halbrook says downstate residents believe the needs of liberal Democrat-led urban Chicago don’t match those of the conservative Republican-led rural south.

Art Miller, Clark County’s Republican Party chairman, sensed that was the feeling of local voters who backed the referendum. More than 500 Clark Countians signed a petition to put the question on the ballot and the Clark County Board gave its OK by a 6-1 vote, said Chris Jackson, who helped gather signatures.

Miller remains realistic about the idea.

“We’re smart enough to know [a separate 51st state] is never going to happen,” he said, “but this referendum gives Chicago area notice that we know what is going on.”

Laurie Lee, Clark County’s clerk and a Republican, holds a similar outlook. “You do feel like Chicago gets most of the say in everything. A lot of downstate feels that way,” she said. “But then, I don’t know how you would go about the logistics of [creating a separate state].”

The chances are slim for such an idea to work its way through Illinois’ legislature, Congress and the president into reality, said Jeffrey Ashley, political science professor at Eastern Illinois University.

The movement behind that concept “is driven by a difference in ideology, lifestyle and perceived corruption. It isn’t likely to pass, as Congress is going to give it a pass,” Ashley explained.

Breaking away from Chicagoland may sound good to downstate residents, but the proposal “won’t gain traction,” Ashley added. “If it does, the counties in question would lose out. While the perception is that Chicago drains resources from the rest of the state, it isn’t factual.”

An analysis by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University calculated that taxpayers in Cook County, Chicago’s home, get 53 cents back in services for every tax dollar they pay. Taxpayers in Chicago rim counties get 90 cents worth of services back for their dollar. Meanwhile, the return on a dollar of taxes is $1.87 for central Illinois taxpayers and $2.81 for southern Illinoisans, the institute found. Economically, the Chicago region accounts for 89.5% of the state’s entire gross domestic product, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Halbrook, the central Illinois legislator, believes the Simon study used incomplete data and was “flawed.”

He also doesn’t see downstaters’ allegiances for the Chicago Cubs, White Sox, Bears and Blackhawks pro sports teams as contradictory to the effort to break Illinois in two. “They enjoy the benefits of going to Indianapolis to enjoy a Colts game or to St. Louis to enjoy a Cardinals baseball game” now, Halbrook said. “So there wouldn’t be a wall preventing them from going to Chicago to enjoy a game.”

No wall. That’s good.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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