Fact-Check: No, Chicago Isn’t 'Often Bailed Out’ by State Taxpayers

Experts we spoke with summed up the claim as a “myth,” “clearly not true,” and “total nonsense.”

Illinois was settled from the south up, but the far northern Chicago region has come to dominate and that often frustrates Downstaters. Now, a group of Republican lawmakers say they want to change the dynamic by divorcing the rest of the state from its biggest city.

In February, state Rep. Brad Halbrook of Shelbyville, south of Decatur, filed a House resolution that, if passed, would “urge the United States Congress to take action to declare the City of Chicago the 51st state of the United States of America and separate it from the rest of Illinois.”

In trying to make his case, Halbrook’s resolution repeats a well-worn claim about the city getting more than its fair share of state support.

“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,” it reads.

Former Gov. Bruce Rauner made a similar claim in 2017 as he and lawmakers battled over a plan to overhaul the way the state funds public schools. Although he eventually signed off on the plan, Rauner argued at the time it contained a “bailout” for Chicago Public Schools, in part because it included $221 million to help CPS cover the employer share of its teacher pension costs. We rated Rauner’s claim False, noting the state long subsidized the costs of teacher pensions for every other Illinois school district but Chicago.

Halbrook’s resolution goes a step further by contending the state is “often” footing the bill to break Chicago out of financial binds at the detriment of Downstate taxpayers. That’s a pretty tall order — and one the facts don’t even come close to backing up.

 

‘Rural myths’

We reached out to Halbrook, but he didn’t point us to any other cases he saw as bailouts beyond the pension help plus other aspects of the state’s school funding law he thinks give Illinois’ largest school district “extra money.”

So we contacted leading experts on the state’s political and economic history to see what they made of his claim.

“It’s clearly not true in any fact-checking [sense],” said John Jackson, a professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. “It’s a very popular claim in Downstate Illinois and the further south you go, the more insistent it is.”

Jackson, who is also a visiting professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, co-authored a report last year that belies such claims. He found that Cook County, which is home to both Chicago and 40 percent of the state’s population, gets 90 cents back for every dollar it sends to Springfield. Central Illinois, on the other hand, receives $1.87 for every dollar generated. And the southern region of the state gets back $2.81 for that amount.

Yet a majority of Downstate residents think they are getting the short end of the stick in a state dominated politically by Chicagoans, the report stated.

Historically, those complaints have sometimes centered on transportation funding, something Jackson’s economic analysis did not include. Decades ago, western Illinoisans dubbed their region “Forgottonia” and one foghorn-voiced lawmaker from that region famously roamed statehouse halls bellowing the name of the state transportation director in a comic attempt to draw attention to a demand for more road money.

Indeed, one of Halbrook’s co-sponsors raised the claim that Chicago gets a disproportionate share of road repair and construction money. But he did not provide any concrete evidence to back up that assertion and we could find nothing to suggest transportation funding might tip the balance of the distributions outlined in the institute’s report.

Moreover, other experts we spoke with described Halbrook’s claim as “total nonsense” and dubiously “grounded in any kind of reality.” One even called it a myth.

“I think it’s very unfortunate that these politicians continue to pander to what amount to myths,” said Mike Lawrence, a former director of the Paul Simon Institute who served as press secretary and senior policy advisor to Gov. Jim Edgar, a Downstate Republican who led Illinois for most of the 1990s. “They talk about urban myths, and there may be such a thing as rural myths as well.”

“That doesn’t mean that every dime that goes to Chicago is justified,” Lawrence added. “It also doesn’t mean that every dime that goes to Downstate is justified. But overall, the strength of the state, the ability to provide education and other services to people in the state are reliant on all sectors of the state.”

Even one of Halbrook’s co-sponsors wouldn’t go so far as to defend the notion that Chicago is regularly receiving state bailouts.

“This was more of a symbolic co-sponsorship for me,” said state Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer of Jacksonville, the assistant House Republican leader. “I didn’t write it. If I had written it, I probably would have written it a little differently because I do believe facts and reality are important.”

Davidsmeyer, however, said he thinks lawmakers need to have a serious conversation about the “Chicago-style policies that keep getting pushed down on the rest of the state.”

Indeed, the resolution goes on to highlight the very different stances many Chicago and Downstate voters take on hot-button issues such as abortion, immigration and gun regulation, none of which have anything to do with economics or bailouts.

Our ruling

Halbrook’s resolution claims that “the City of Chicago is often bailed out by taxpayers in the rest of the State,” pointing to the funding CPS received in 2017 to help cover its pension costs.

We previously rated a similar claim False because the measure only provided CPS with financial support the state had long offered to all other districts in the state except Chicago.

Halbrook also upped the ante by contending the money for CPS wasn’t an isolated incident, with the state “often” throwing a lifeline to Chicago taxpayers at the expense of those Downstate. He offered no evidence, however, and academic research has found the opposite is true.

Experts we spoke with summed up the claim as a “myth,” “clearly not true,” and “total nonsense.” We have a rating for claims that fit that description: Pants on Fire!


PANTS ON FIRE – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

Sources

House Resolution 101, Illinois General Assembly, accessed April 5, 2019

“Rauner's Chicago schools ‘bailout’ claim rooted in political histrionics, not numbers,” PolitiFact Illinois, Aug. 1, 2017

“Gov. Rauner signs sweeping school funding changes,” The Associated Press, Aug. 31, 2017

Phone and email interview: Brad Halbrook, Illinois state representative, April 3-4, 2019

Phone interview: John Jackson, visiting professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, April 3, 2019

Report: The Politics of Public Budgeting in Illinois, Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, July 2018

American FactFinder, U.S. Census, accessed April 5, 2019

“When we seceded: Remembering Forgottonia,” The McDonough County Voice, Dec. 28, 2010

Interview transcripts: James Thompson, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Oral History Program, June 12, 2014

Phone interview: Dan Caulkins, Illinois state representative, April 2-4, 2019

Phone interview: Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois-Springfield, April 2, 2019

Phone interview: Charles N. Wheeler III, director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois-Springfield, April 3, 2019

Phone interview: Mike Lawrence, Illinois politics expert, April 3, 2019

Phone interview: C.D. Davidsmeyer, Illinois state representative, April 3, 2019

Email interview: Guy Tridgell, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation, April 2, 2019