What are local execs thinking? Crain’s exclusive Harris Poll finds out.

A new series by the Harris Poll and Crain’s finds out where Chicago biz leaders stand on the graduated income tax, bringing workers back to the office and more.

By William Johnson | Crain’s Chicago Business

Business leaders often reflect the character of the regions where their companies are based: Think of the tech tycoons of Silicon Valley and the wolves of Wall Street. For the Chicago area, that means leaders who exhibit the moderate pragmatism and realistic, tempered optimism that typifies the Midwest.

That’s precisely the portrait that emerges in the first of a new series of surveys that the Harris Poll is fielding in conjunction with Crain’s. We surveyed 200 Chicago-area executives—owners, C-suite executives, vice presidents and directors—and asked them about their companies and the city in which they operate. The quarterly Harris Poll Chicago Executive Pulse will measure the business environment over time while also drilling in on specific issues of the moment.

No surprise, area business leaders take a judicious, balanced approach to issues. So 55 percent support Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposal for a progressive income tax, which would hike rates on those making over $250,000. At the same time, they overwhelmingly favor the Illinois General Assembly overhauling pension laws (91 percent) and enacting tort reform (87 percent).

Twenty-nine percent of leaders said that controlling COVID’s spread should be Pritzker’s and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s top priority, while 18 percent said that it should be reopening the economy. Many are already moving in that direction, with 63 percent of companies saying last month that they intended to have at least a quarter of their workers back in the office within 30 days. Still, 27 percent said they will wait a year or more to bring everyone back, and 7 percent said they never plan to have everyone back in their offices.

The pandemic has been tough on businesses in Chicago as elsewhere: A majority of business leaders (53 percent) said revenues have fallen since the start of the pandemic, though that is starting to abate. Most leaders said that in the previous month revenues either increased (35 percent) or stayed the same (29 percent), while 37 percent said that their cash flow had fallen. A majority (57 percent) said that Chicago-area business conditions had deteriorated in the previous month. But they remain longer-term optimists, with 41 percent predicting that the area’s economy will be good or very good in six months.

Aside from COVID, what impediments stand in the way? More than a quarter of business leaders (26 percent) identified taxes as the biggest issue, followed by economic problems (20 percent) and crime (19 percent).

But they also see a city with great bones. Large majorities (78 percent) rate the Chicago area highly for access to airports and availability of public transportation, access to talent (70 percent), and strong infrastructure and utilities (69 percent). Those fundamentals should help Chicago weather the current period and re-emerge as an economic power when the pandemic passes.

This poll data provides both a snapshot of this moment in time and also a good basis for future comparison. We’ll field the next Executive Pulse after the November elections, when we’ll have a sharper sense of the pandemic’s trajectory and the country’s.

William Johnson is CEO of the Harris Poll.

Read the full story at Crain’s.