Shaw: A campaign to trim Illinois’ government fat
By Andy Shaw Better Government Association January 31, 2014 6:10PM
Andy Shaw, Executive Director of the Better Government Association (BGA).
Updated: March 3, 2014 5:41PM
It’s “show time” again in Springfield, and what a difference a couple of months can make. The unexpected success of the fall veto session and the politics of an election year offer genuine hope for a productive 2014.
In December, lawmakers passed a major pension reform bill, and whether or not you like the details, the rating agencies are pleased, and the courts will decide on its constitutionality. The General Assembly also legalized marriage equality, which settles a divisive social issue, at least for now.
Those giant steps were made possible by the sensible stewardship of the four legislative leaders, who rounded up enough votes from their respective members.
So now it’s on to the new challenges of a new year.
On the fiscal side, that means paying the state’s bills on time, not a year late; really balancing the budget, not just pretending to do so; and determining the future of the massive 2011 income tax increase that expires at the end of the year.
I’d like to offer another long-overdue reform that tops our legislative agenda at the Better Government Association and that we call “smart streamlining.” Illinois is weighed down by a public-sector obesity epidemic, and it starts with the figure 7,000 — roughly the number of units of government in the state, all of them separate taxing bodies.
That’s far more than any other state — about 2,000 more than runners-up Texas and California, which have much larger populations, and Pennsylvania, which is about the same size as Illinois.
The poster child for our bureaucratic bloat is the state’s 1,400 townships — relics from the horse-and-buggy era that offer, for the most part, services also being provided, or that could easily be provided, by adjacent municipalities and counties.
Illinois also has about 900 school districts — more than 200 have only one school — along with about 850 drainage districts, 800 fire protection districts, 300 park districts and 300 library districts.
Cook County has 542 governmental units, more than any other U.S. county, and that includes five downtown offices — assessor, treasurer, clerk, circuit court clerk and recorder of deeds — that mostly push paper around.
Add it all up, and you have a multibillion-dollar government “industry” replete with waste, inefficiency and duplication and that’s subsidized by us, the taxpayers.
It’s time to put Illinois on a serious diet by developing a smart multi-year streamlining plan for consolidating some local governments and eliminating others. Lawmakers have talked about it for years, and it’s now time for action.
The BGA has a few other watchdog priorities for 2014, including:
Strengthening statements of economic interest, which are opaque documents, so they provide clear information on public officials’ sources of income and potential conflicts.
Protecting Illinois’ freedom of information law, our most important transparency tool, from efforts to increase filing costs and lengthen response times.
Closing the pension abuse loopholes that haven’t been addressed yet, most notably double-dipping and unjustified end-of-career pension “sweeteners.”
The BGA is encouraged that lawmakers joined us last year to add safeguards that should reduce the number of wrongful felony convictions, to stop protecting police officers who consume alcohol before or during their shifts and to start giving residents the power to abolish their townships.
Those are important reforms. And we hope our legislative allies support this year’s BGA agenda, beginning with “smart streamlining.”
That would confirm that the Legislature is indeed moving toward the better government that we deserve.
Andy Shaw is president and chief executive of the Chicago-based Better Government Association.