Shaw: Illinois government needs deep and lasting changes
By Andy Shaw Guest Commentary November 1, 2012 9:36PM
Updated: December 3, 2012 6:19AM
Superstorm Sandy. Presidential debates. Congressional races. Budget battles. Crime sprees. Da Bears. Jesse Jackson Jr.
That’s more than enough to satiate the hungriest news junkie. But it also means a lot of important political and governmental stories fall below the radar screen.
And those stories, taken collectively, remind us that the road to reform in Illinois is more challenging than a Chicago side street after a snowstorm.
The biggest story came in a report by a group of respected financial experts, led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, that called Illinois a “mess” and rating our financial condition the worst of any state in the country.
Too much spending, borrowing and “budget gamesmanship,” they wrote, and not enough revenue, tax reform and strategic planning.
“Illinois’ budget is not fiscally sustainable,“ the report concluded, with one expert adding this chilling prediction: “I think it’s going to reach a point where there’s either social disorder or bankruptcy before people will act.”
The problem, as we see it from our watchdog perch at the Better Government Association, is that government in Illinois is set up to serve the politicians first and the public last — meaning decisions are frequently based on self-interest, not the public interest.
And that was graphically illustrated by some other recent stories that got too little attention.
For instance, we learned that Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas broke the rules in the 1990s, when she was a county commissioner, by accepting homeowner exemptions on three personal properties when only one is allowed.
Pappas and her husband refunded the undeserved savings of more than $5,000 after the BGA and WBBM-TV raised the issue. How widespread is the abuse of this tax exemption?
In another story, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that a nephew of Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios landed a job in Secretary of State Jesse White’s office five weeks after Berrios hired the son of White’s chief of staff.
Both offices deny any tit-for-tat, but this is the just the latest ethics controversy for Berrios, who hired his son and sister to high-paying jobs soon after being elected assessor in 2010 and was recently fined $10,000 by the county’s ethics board for ignoring its directive that he dismiss those relatives. Are any of these jobs even necessary?
We’re not saying Pappas, Berrios and White are poster children for our government woes. In fact, they’ve all implemented welcome reforms in their offices.
And we’re not condemning all top officials. The new administrations in Chicago and in Cook and DuPage counties are taking steps to improve fairness, accountability, efficiency and transparency.
Even in Springfield, where the biggest financial and policy decisions are made — and government is arguably the most dysfunctional — legislative leaders are starting to realize that business as usual is unsustainable.
House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), whose three decades of iron-fisted leadership makes him the reform crowd’s No. 1 target, blames the dysfunction on lawmakers “afraid to do the heavy lifting.”
But beyond the blame game is a government system in desperate need of cultural and structural changes that begin with an attitude adjustment and a new mindset.
It’s an extraordinarily difficult task that is absolutely necessary because Illinois, like the Titanic, is not unsinkable.
But we have to see the looming iceberg before the captain did in 1912, so we don’t sink a century later.
Andy Shaw is president and chief executive of the Better Government Association.
Contact him at email@example.com or (312) 386-9097.