Fighting Illini

images-6Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, who took office in January, must have had a double-shot of espresso before he sat down with the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune on Monday for a chat about his state’s economic development plans.

Either that, or he just finished watching Mr. T snarl at Sylvester Stallone in Rocky III and was inspired to exercise his trash-talking mojo.

Gov. Rauner told the Trib that the centerpiece of his turnaround plan is an all-out assault on Indiana, a neighboring state literally joined at the hip with Illinois by a nearly 500-mile border. The IL governor didn’t mince any words in throwing down his gauntlet.

“Believe me, I am going to rip the economic guts out of Indiana,” Rauner told the newspaper. “I am one of the baddest enemies anybody can have. I don’t care what the headline is. I want results, and we’re coming after Indiana big-time.”

We believe you, Bruce. Here’s your tabloid headline:


Okay, let’s pause a moment to provide some context for this outburst. Based on what’s happened in and to the Land of Lincoln in recent years, it’s not hard to understand why the state’s chief exec might have a chip on his shoulder.

Two of the four men who have served as governor of Illinois since 1999 are now residing in federal prisons. George Ryan was convicted of racketeering for actions taken while he was in office. Rod Blagojevich got nailed for offering Barack Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder. While both of these characters were engaged in their nefarious deeds, Illinois’ fiscal stability collapsed into a black hole of debt. State budget deficits were measured in billions and an apocalyptic $138 billion in unfunded pension obligations loomed over everything.

Rauner’s immediate predecessor, Gov. Pat Quinn, didn’t flinch from applying a heaping dose of foul-tasting medicine: in 2011, Quinn pushed through a massive $6.8-billion tax increase. You can question Quinn’s strategy, but not his political courage–enacting a 66-percent tax hike while clawing your way out of the worst recession since the Great Depression took some gumption.

Quinn’s tough decision to sacrifice short-term stimulus for long-term stability put a target on Illinois’ back in the economic development community. The ink was barely dry on Quinn’s tax measure when an unsavory new phenomenon in interstate competition debuted on billboards all over Illinois. These billboards featured not-so-subtle messages encouraging businesses to pull up their roots in IL and leave the state for the sponsor’s presumably warmer business climate.

By our count, at least four states adopted this in-your-face approach, including Indiana, which wallpapered Chicago with billboards asking businesses if they felt “Illinoyed by higher taxes.” In 2013, Texas Gov. Rick Perry delivered a similar message in person, showing up at the international BIO show in Chicago and promptly telling Illinois businesses they’d be much better off in the Lone Star State.

So we understand why Gov. Rauner is in the mood to counterpunch. But we wish he’d resisted the temptation to engage in this no-holds-barred mud-wrestling competition.

It’s always been our position that a state does itself the most good in the site selection competition by emphasizing its strengths. Trash-talking about your neighbors and pointing out their weaknesses doesn’t make you look bigger, it makes you look small and petty. And it’s not the smartest strategy in an economic reality which places a premium on regional cooperation.

Business Facilities always has been careful not to get drawn into the middle of these schoolyard duke-outs between states. Every year, after we publish our annual State Rankings Report, we usually get one or two calls from state agencies asking us for an across-the-board comparison of their rankings results vs. the results for one or two competitors. Sorry guys, we don’t go there. We’ll tell you who the best of the best is, but we won’t put our moniker on your next “Our Place is Better than Their Place” campaign.

The Land of Lincoln is a great state that has a lot to offer to businesses picking sites for new and expanded facilities. Memo to Gov. Rauner: ignore your “enemies” and punch home a positive message for Illinois.

Take the high road. It’s the surest path to a summit of sustainable growth and prosperity.