By Will Connors
CHICAGO -- Frustration is mounting across a swath of corporate Illinois as the state lurches toward its second year without a budget.
A major business group has started a lobbying, social-media and letter-writing campaign directed at legislators called LOL Illinois -- a play on the Land of Lincoln and the idea that the state is becoming a laughingstock for its inability to solve its budget problems.
"There's a crisis of confidence in terms of a plan to address some pretty significant structural problems in the state," said Scott Santi, the chairman of Illinois Tool Works, a publicly traded manufacturing company with a market capitalization of $43.7 billion. "It's challenging for Illinois to be competitive given the uncertainty around the fiscal crisis."
Last year, Illinois's Republican governor and Democratic Legislature failed to agree on a budget, and they have been deadlocked on a new spending plan ever since. The state is currently about $11 billion behind on paying its bills, according to the comptroller's office.
No state had gone without a budget for over a year since the Great Depression until Illinois.
And while the state is still funding certain core functions, many nonprofits have had to shut down or reduce operations and lay off staff after going without payments from the state.
"It's a total travesty," said John Canning, the chairman of Chicago-based private-equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners, LLC, who said he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of his firm. "We look like idiots relative to the surrounding states. For the two sides not to get in a room and come to a compromise is unforgivable. That's not what they were elected for. It's frustrating."
Illinois already has the lowest credit rating among U.S. states and a large unfunded pension liability. This week, the U.S. Census Bureau released figures showing that the state lost more citizens than any other for the third year in a row.
The crisis led the Commercial Club of Chicago, of which Mr. Canning is a member, to start its LOL Illinois campaign this fall. The group, which includes some of the biggest companies in the state, began putting billboards around the state featuring photographs of concerned-looking residents and taglines such as "Not having a budget is not a laughing matter."
The group is encouraging people to write to local lawmakers and officials asking them to reach a compromise. Over 15,000 people have written letters so far, according to Ty Fahner, the president of the Civic Committee at the Commercial Club of Chicago and a former Illinois attorney general. More than two million people have visited the campaign's Facebook page.
"What we need is for our leaders to actually meet and lead and govern," Mr. Fahner said. "We're not the enemy, they're not the enemy, they're just not doing their job."
Catherine Kelly, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bruce Rauner, said that while Democratic leaders continue to stall in an effort to force a crisis, Mr. Rauner "continues to fight for common-sense, bipartisan reforms that will help balance our budget and put Illinois on a path to prosperity."
Steve Brown, spokesman for Democratic Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, said Mr. Rauner needs to focus on the budget and not other demands.
"We'd like to get this all resolved," Mr. Brown said. "But when you have somebody who has a series of demands that have nothing to do with the budget, it's hard to get them resolved."
While some residents are leaving Illinois, Mr. Canning and other executives say that they don't think companies have gotten to the point of leaving the state yet.
"The real question is who would move here?" Mr. Canning said. "If you're making a decision to move here, and you have no idea what this solution to this budget crisis is, you don't know what the tax situation will be, you'd be crazy to say, 'I'm gonna move a major operation and hope the solution makes sense,' when you've had no indication that anybody is coming to the table with a reasonable solution."
Write to Will Connors at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 27, 2016 17:46 ET (22:46 GMT)
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