With the City of Chicago urging the rest of Cook County to join it in formally seceding from the State of Illinois to create the nation’s 51st state, Evanston officials wrestled with their most important decision since the City’s founding in 1863 – whether to join Chicago, or vote to remain a part of the failed state of Illinois.
If successful, the new State of Chicago – as it is assumed the new state would keep the City rather than the County’s name – would be the 22nd-largest state by population, about 200,000 people ahead of Colorado. The proposal would only work, however, if a supermajority of the other government entities within Cook County agreed to join Chicago in leaving Illinois behind.
Pearl LeBlanc, Evanston’s Intergovernmental Guru, said arguments could be made in either direction. “Ultimately, this is a policy determination to be made by elected officials, not by employees like myself,” she said. “While we might as staff dictate policy on minor issues – such as settling the Veolia lawsuit, allowing in food trucks, fining landlords, and setting up TIF districts – a decision like this absolutely must come from Council itself.”
Nevertheless, City Attorney Grafton Grant seemed to tip the hand of City staff by preparing a 45-“Whereas”-clause ordinance effectuating secession from Illinois and joining Chicago for City Council to debate. Under Home Rule provisions of the State Constitution, the staff memo argues, the City and other state municipalities that have adopted Home Rule can decide to remove themselves from the jurisdiction of the very State Constitution permitting home rule.
The ramifications of secession have yet to be fully mapped out, as it is far from clear whether a federal legislature, one that for the past several years has been largely dysfunctional, would recognize and approve of the new state of Chicago. Most government experts postulate that the new state would initially operate without senators, but would maintain its federally elected congressional representatives.
Chicago has cited the example of West Virginia, which split from Virginia during Civil War times. Officials stated publicly that the City felt its hand had been forced by the continuing lack of a State budget out of Springfield, a crisis some argue triggers potential radical ramifications. On one hand, officials say, the State refuses to exercise its most basic government requirement – funding itself and its programs. On the other hand, they say, the State threatens to take over some of the largest entities within the City such as Chicago Public Schools.
The City of Evanston also stands to gain more control over City pension contributions and the distribution of what is expected to be a similar level of State income tax collections. Final numbers have not been fully analyzed, however, and some fear that State taxes may have to be raised to cover costs. Chicago, after all, can hardly be said to be financially flush.
Pensions may end up deciding the day. According to local pension expert Derreck Academy, the amount owed on current state guaranteed pensions would have to be split among both Illinois and New Chicago entities. Common ground would likely become difficult if not impossible to find.Fees collected from a proposed new marina linked with other State of Chicago Marinas in Wilmette, Chicago and others lakefront towns will ensure at least one constant stream of revenue and narrow the pension-funding gaps, according to the secession ordinance.
Ms. LeBlanc also signaled the possibility of leaving the United States and joining Canada should the U.S. Presidential election yield a President Trump. “It is a well known fact that nearly all of Cook County sits within Indian tribal territories. We are, in some respects, a sovereign nation all our own. And as such, we could vote to join a separate federal government entirely.”
Mr. Grant refused to comment on possible Canadian membership, pointing questioners to “whereas” clauses 36 and 37, which refer only to similar ordinances under consideration in Wilmette and Glenview. Both those Villages seem to be leaning toward joining Chicago, but much remains to be seen in the coming months.
Chicago has set a deadline for responding – on or before April 1, 2017.