Originally Posted Online: April 02, 2013, 6:00 pm
Last Updated: April 03, 2013, 8:46 am

Study: Illinois not so sweet a land of liberty

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Illinois is one of the least free states in the nation.

At least that's the case according to the findings of a study released this week that ranked the states based on how much state government policies promote freedom.

The Prairie State ranks 45th, and that number has decreased each year that the George Mason University's Mercatus Center has put out the report.

Of the three categories the researchers looked at, Illinois ranks particularly low in two. The state is last when it comes to personal freedom, 42nd in regulatory policy and 29th in fiscal policy, according to the study.

In the most recent version, researchers also went back and analyzed data for 2001. That year, Illinois ranked 29th.

Jason Sorens, one of the study's authors, cited several reasons for Illinois' drop, including an increase in tobacco taxes, a statewide smoking ban that he said is more restrictive than California's, a "big decline in how businesses rate the court system," state and local debt, and unfunded liabilities in the pension system.

Sorens, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Buffalo, said Illinois residents and politicians alike should be worried about the state's low ranking because a lack of freedom could be causing the state to lose business opportunities and population to neighboring states.

"Illinois has a net out-migration of 5.4 percent over the decade," he said. "That means that far more people are leaving Illinois then coming in."

Sorens said he believes those people are moving to the freer neighboring states.

"We have strong statistical evidence that freer states attract more people," he said. "Especially a state like Indiana that's No. 1 on regulatory policy and only becoming more free in that area. It seems likely that a lot of businesses will look at Indiana instead of Illinois."

Indiana ranks 16th overall in the study.

Critics, however, say they are worried by the subjective nature of the definition of freedom.

"There are a lot of variables that bring into question what exactly freedom is," said state Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline. "Is a lack of government freedom? I don't believe it always is."

Jacobs said he was also skeptical of the claim that people leave Illinois because of a lack of freedom.

"If you look at the bigger states they sometimes have less freedom," he said. "But they also have a bigger population. If you want more freedom, you can move to the middle of South Dakota. But I really don't think people will."

But state Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, said he believes that business regulations and laws that take away personal freedom are contributing to people leaving the state.

"We're over-regulated, over-taxed, and our liberties are being taken away," Meier said. "And the more we continue to over-regulate the more we are going to drive people and businesses out of this state."

Sorens suggested some ways that Illinois could improve its ranking, including reforming the court system, which he said was rated poorly in a survey of business owners and managers that was conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

He also said that making it more difficult for state and local governments to take on debt and reducing future unfunded liabilities in the pension system could increase the state's ranking.