Updated: June 2, 2014 1:02PM
The Illinois Legislature’s “diet doctor” is asking his fattest patients to swallow a bitter streamlining pill and, as you might expect, the Rx is meeting a lot of resistance.
I’m talking about state Rep. Jack Franks’ attempt to downsize a public sector that’s morbidly obese.
Illinois, as I’ve mentioned before, has nearly 7,000 separate units of government — about 2,000 more than any other state and about 3,200 more than any other Midwest state.
They include many one-school districts, library districts, fire protection districts, sanitary districts, mosquito abatement districts and Exhibit A of outmoded government, the township, of which there are 1,432 in Illinois.
Many reformers, including Franks and the Better Government Association, believe it’s way past time to eliminate some government units and consolidate others to provide more efficient services at a lower cost to taxpayers.
That’s eminently logical but extraordinarily difficult, as Franks learned during two challenging years as chairman of the Local Government Consolidation Commission, where the concept of a state-mandated reduction in taxing bodies met strong opposition from local governments that claim their offices perform important services and should be retained as is.
The state commission recently issued its final report, which Franks summarizes this way: “After a significant amount of research and debate, our main focus became empowering local citizens to be able to make their own choices.”
He’s right — reducing local government should be a local decision, not a state mandate —and to that end the veteran Democrat from McHenry County introduced several bills.
One bill gives 150 local units of government the power to dissolve if they don’t already have it, another extends DuPage County’s streamlining authority to Illinois’ other 101 counties and a third imposes a four-year moratorium on the state’s ability to establish new units of government.
Franks said the measures would “increase the power of self-determination available to local taxpayers while ensuring the General Assembly doesn’t add to the problem by creating more government to replace anything that’s consolidated.”
Two of his proposals have made it through the House, and a third is struggling, so the outcome is uncertain.
But one thing is clear — this is a significant reform effort in a state where it’s much easier to add government than subtract it.
For instance, it takes only 100 registered voters to start a new park district, but 20 percent of the registered voters to eliminate one. There are also limitations and ambiguities in state law that discourage efforts to combine local taxing districts.
None of this is surprising in a state where government is frequently viewed first as an employer, contractor and tax collector and last as a service provider.
That may work well for the insiders and employees who benefit, but not the taxpayers who pay for the governmental unit or the residents who depend on the services. So Franks is asking for help in getting these downsizing reforms adopted.
“Our report charts a course for future legislation,” he said, “and a challenge of such complexity will require stakeholders from across the state to work together with taxpayers and government leaders at all levels. The media and groups like the BGA are going to be critical to making the importance of this issue known to a larger audience.”
Franks is right — “smart streamlining,” as the BGA calls it, is complicated and daunting, but it’s also a key to a healthier state, which is vitally important to residents and businesses alike.
So “Dr. Franks,” we appreciate your treatment plan, and we’ll try to help you administer the bitter diet pill to your corpulent patients.
Let the healing begin.
Andy Shaw is president and chief executive of the Better Government Association.