How tattered has Illinois’ image become?

The latest evidence is blaring from a series of billboards aimed at getting Illinois businesses to relocate to Kentucky, a state with an economy that has historically ranked among the worst in the nation.

Blue Grass State leaders say that’s changing, and they’re telegraphing the news via billboards lining Interstate 57 from Chicago to the Kentucky border. They target Illinois companies and use the Land of Lincoln’s anti-business and high-tax reputation as bait.

The aggressive campaign features five different messages, including “Illinois isn't pro-business, Kentucky is,” and “Illinois has an Ill tax system.” Others target “insane” Illinois regulations and call Illinois red tape “inescapable.”

This is usually the point in any ”discussion” of Illinois' economic problems at which our elected leaders choose sides and argue over whether or not allegations of our state's decline are true. And if so, who and what is to blame.

Please spare us the unnecessary angst and unwinnable political fight.

The simple truth is this: In the world of economic development, perception becomes reality. And by that measure, Illinois’ reputation is in trouble.

Some of the things Kentucky is crowing about are things our leaders can do nothing about. Lawmakers cannot, for example, pass a new law that would magically give Illinois the more moderate weather Kentucky enjoys.

What they can and must do, however, is take threats like this one seriously. That starts with concentrating on what Kentucky is selling that Illinois should be buying so we can remain competitive in a snowy rust-belt region where aggressive pro-growth states such as Michigan and Indiana thrive while we shrink. Both those states also have conducted successful poaching forays into Illinois. So have New Jersey and Wisconsin.

It’s not hard to see why Kentucky opted for billboards ads. They’re a real bargain as economic development goes. The Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development is paying just $87,000 for a campaign the agency says already is paying off.

“We have had a number of Illinois businesses inquire about doing business in the state,” Vivek Sarin, Kentucky’s economic development interim secretary, told Chicago Tribune business reporter Abdel Jimenez last week. “It’s enough to catch our attention and justify" the expense, she said.

She also credited Kentucky’s right-to-work law for interest from Illinois companies. That law, which makes it illegal to require workers who do not want be in a union to either join or pay union dues, survived a Kentucky Supreme Court challenge last year.

In the past four years, Kentucky also launched its Red Tape Reduction initiative, instituted tax reforms, and created other pro-business policies. The development agency credits those steps with paving the way for 58,000 new jobs planned for Kentucky.

It’s hard to argue with some of Kentucky officials' arguments for urging Illinois businesses to relocate. But they are dead wrong about this one: It is Illinois, not Kentucky, which we believe boasts the best, most productive workforce in the nation. Illinois also has a superior location on the U.S. map, a university and research system ready-made for growth, and plenty of homegrown leaders and entrepreneurs to help lead an economic resurgence.

It won’t begin, however, until Illinois leaders acknowledge we have a problem, and then make solving it Priority No. 1.

The (Moline) Dispatch-Rock Island Argus, Wednesday

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