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A man collects signatures for a petition to separate Illinois from Chicago during the Steeleville Fourth of July Parade. Organizers of a new group are exploring ways to form a "New Illinois" that would be more responsive the 60 percent of Illinois residents who reside outside of Cook County. 

MOUNT VERNON — Organizers of a long-shot effort to divorce the rest of the state from Cook County are hoping to recruit sympathetic Southern Illinoisans to their fledgling movement.

New Illinois Inc. nonprofit has scheduled an informational meeting for 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 20, at Fairfield Inn & Suites, 217 Potomac Blvd., in Mount Vernon.

Scheduled speakers include co-founder and chairman G. H. Merritt, Illinois State Rep. Brad Halbrook, who has introduced legislation calling for the split, and Matt Sebastian of Southern Illinois Secession. Paul Preston, president of New California, is scheduled to make a remote appearance via Skype.

Preston will “discuss the history and progress of the state split movement in California” and share “ideas and strategies with supporters of a state split in Illinois,” according to a press release from the organization.

Merritt, who lives north of Chicago in Lake County, said she co-founded the organization a year ago because she’s fed up with Illinois government, and believes it is a “corrupt monstrosity” beyond the point of repair.

Creating a “New Illinois” is a chance to create a government that is more responsive to the 60 percent of the citizens of Illinois who live outside of Cook County, she said.

Merritt explains her proposal as seeking an amicable divorce. And as the party wanting the separation, she said Chicago can even keep the house. “We want to kick ourselves out of Illinois,” she said.

“It doesn’t have to be something hateful or anything,” she added. “I have loved ones in the city, and loved ones retired on state pensions.” She said that the driving force to separate is the ability to give both parties the flexibility to create policies that are best for their respective territories.  

“They (Cook County/Chicago) can do best for theirs, and we’ll do best for the rest.”

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As for the messy business of splitting up the debt load and assets?

Merritt said “you’d have arbitrators representing both sides and it would be a negotiation process.” But she said that Cook County would likely assume most of the debt burden. Asked for more details on how that would work or why they would accept that, Merritt said it’s early in the process. "You’d have to run the numbers.” She acknowledged she’s not an expert on the financials, but said that others with those types of skills are advising the nonprofit.

“I’m not a politician, as you can see. I’m not a lawyer. I’m not an economist. I’m just a person who is appalled by the circumstances in our state."

There are four people on the New Illinois Inc. board, she said. Two are from upstate Illinois, and two are from Wisconsin, where it was incorporated.

The idea of splitting up Illinois is not a new one. It’s generally been a movement born of frustration and the natural rub that exists in a state with one dominant city and lots of small towns and rural countryside. Especially in places where economies have lagged, it is not uncommon for people to express feeling locked out of the Springfield power structure, and politically and culturally at odds with Chicago.

But it’s never been a movement with real legs. In 2018, the Southern Illinois University Paul Simon Policy Institute released a study finding that despite deeply held beliefs that downstate Illinois does not receive its fair share of state funding and resources, the opposite is actually true: Southern Illinois, especially, receives far more back than it contributes. For every $1 generated, Southern Illinois receives $2.81 in return, the study found. But the false narrative does have serious consequences, resulting in gridlock in the Capitol that has aggravated the state’s funding challenges, the authors reported. 

Merritt said she disagrees with the Simon Institute’s study, and that a member of her organization is working on an official rebuttal. 

She encouraged people interested in learning more about the organization to come to the event in Mount Vernon. It's free, but RSVPs are requested for planning purposes by contacting NewIllinoisState@gmail.com or (847) 845-9293.

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molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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