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Shaw Thoughts

I’ve been communicating with many of you for nearly 40 years as a newspaper reporter, a political correspondent on TV, a radio commentator and now as President & CEO of the Better Government Association, an anti-corruption civic watchdog organization.

I know what good and bad government look like, who’s using your hard-earned tax dollars wisely (and who’s not), and what we can rightfully demand of our elected and appointed officials to reform government that is broken at virtually every level. I know where the bodies are buried, how to ask the tough questions and how to hold errant public officials’ feet to the fire.

This is where I’ll be posting pieces and producing videos that help you understand what’s going on in the governments around you, what we think about it and what should be done to make it better. After all, that’s who we are: The Better Government Association.

But we can’t do it alone. I can talk the talk, but you have to walk the walk with me and rest of us at the BGA. I hope this blog can inform, motivate and direct our campaign for better government. It’s our right. And their responsibility.


Is it possible to start breaking up the budget logjam that threatens to shut down state government—adversely impacting people who provide and depend on key services—over cocktails and Twizzlers on the veranda of a Springfield apartment overlooking a scenic park?

Maybe not, but freshman lawmaker Tim Butler, a Springfield Republican, says his residence is as good a place as any to jump-start long-stalled negotiations between another newbie, GOP Governor Bruce Rauner, and the veteran Democrats who control the General Assembly, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.

Butler’s whimsy masks the deep frustration that afflicts lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who sit a few feet from each other in the Capitol, but might as well be miles apart when they’re discussing the best ways to improve the state’s sorry economic conditions.

As a result, three-plus months into the current fiscal year the state still doesn’t have a budget, and there’s no indication the stalemate will end any time soon.

So Illinois residents—especially those who rely on state funding of human services and government paychecks—wait anxiously for the well to run dry, which it will, without a budget deal, because spending exceeds revenue by billions of dollars.

Rep. Butler’s frustration was echoed by two other Central Illinois lawmakers—freshman GOP Rep. Avery Bourne and second-term Senate Democrat Andy Manar— at a recent Better Government Association "Idea Forum" entitled "New Lawmakers vs. Old Problems."

We held it in Springfield to hear from legislators who don’t have the clout or seniority to break an impasse that holds the entire General Assembly hostage, but might have fresh perspectives on the internecine warfare.

Sen. Manar says he talks daily with members of both parties to encourage dialogue, but adds, "it’s absolutely ridiculous the leadership and the governor haven’t met since May. There’s no way we get a resolution without meetings."

He laments the fact that the collegial atmosphere surrounding Rauner’s January Inauguration evaporated completely when the new governor introduced his controversial "turnaround agenda."

"The wheels flew off the bus," Manar says.

Rep. Butler says he keeps a jar of Twizzlers on his desk in the House to encourage dialogue. "It attracts Republicans and Democrats like flypaper."

But sadly, it’s not catching bi-partisan solutions.

Butler says compromise is difficult because both sides are campaigning for the 2016 elections, not governing.

Rep. Bourne adds, "It doesn’t help that both parties believe they’re winning," so neither wants to blink.

But her restive constituents just want a fair and balanced budget, she says.  "They’re not calling to say, ‘Way to go—we’re winning.’"

The impasse drags on because court orders and selective appropriations are funding most government services, so there’s not enough pain to prompt demands for a settlement.

But state coffers will be empty in a few months without a budget agreement, and then more than Twizzlers will hit the fan.

Rep. Bourne is right—there aren’t any winners in this high-stakes game of chicken—but there could be a lot of losers, and no matter how much both sides spend on trash-talking mailers and media ads, a government shutdown is an irresponsible dereliction of duty.

It’s time for Rauner and legislative leaders to start discussing a workable compromise, and Butler’s veranda might be good a place to begin.

Cocktails, Twizzlers and 13 million Illinois residents are waiting.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.


Pop Quiz: What do these current and former government officials have in common?
Tom Sheahan, a one-time Oak Brook police chief.
Jerry Zeldenrust, an ex-Lansing police commander.
Glenn Poshard, a former Illinois Congressman.
Dennis Gianopolus, an attorney for Calumet City.
Ray Orozco Jr., a past Chicago Fire Commissioner.
David Hulseberg, a former Lombard village manager.
Thomas Downing, a DuPage County supervising prosecutor. 
Emily Bell, an ex-human services director in Bloomington.
Answer: They’re members of Illinois’ "Padded Pension Posse," which is made up of hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of politically-connected public or quasi-public employees who’ve exploited loopholes in Illinois pension law to boost their retirement benefits by thousands of dollars a month.    
We’re talking about legal but fiscally and ethically dubious ways to increase retirement income considerably, including: 
  • "Sweeteners" that fatten monthly payments by adding sick, personal and vacation days to pension calculations;
  • "Spiking," the term for end-of-career raises that increase retirement checks by thousands of dollars;
  • "Tacking," which allows non-government workers to participate in public pensions plans;
  • "Double-dipping," when public employees collect two or more pensions from different units of government at the same time.
Ending those abuses won’t solve our pension crisis—the state’s five major retirement accounts are underfunded by more than $100 billion—but abuse inflates the liability by millions of dollars, and deflates our confidence in government because the recipients are often insiders with the clout and know-how to work the system.
As the Better Government Association reported in the Sun-Times recently, the number of Illinois retirees collecting six-figure pensions increased by more than 2,000 in the past year—that’s 17 percent—and some of the growth reflects the gimmicks we’re talking about.
State lawmakers, prompted by groups like the BGA, tried to eliminate some of the abuse by including specific prohibitions in their 2013 pension reform bill.
But when the Illinois Supreme Court struck down the entire bill on constitutional grounds earlier this year, the anti-abuse provisions died too.
The high court deep-sixed the law, which was crafted to save billions of tax dollars, because it would have scaled back benefits already promised to current and future retirees, in apparent violation of the state constitution.
But the five lawsuits challenging the bill, as well as the court ruling, barely address the abuses we’re talking about.
And there’s nothing in the state constitution protecting pension abuse from reformers and lawmakers committed to eliminating it.
So lawmakers can simply lift the anti-abuse language from the 2013 bill, strengthen it by banning abuses that weren’t included in the original measure, and introduce it as new legislation.
That’s the kind of bi-partisan reform Republicans and Democrats can and should embrace now, while their leaders are trying to find common ground on a budget deal.
It’s also a good government initiative that millions of Illinois residents who don’t benefit from pension padding would applaud, and that’s a sound state lawmakers don’t hear much these days.
The legislature probably can’t eliminate or reduce the dubious benefits members of the "Padded Pension Posse" are already collecting.
But Springfield can certainly stop the posse from growing any larger and inflicting even more damage on pension plans that are already teetering on the edge of the fiscal cliff.
This is one posse that should stop hunting for our tax dollars.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.

Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War movie, "Platoon," includes a memorable line from actor Tom Berenger, playing cold-blooded Sgt. Barnes:

"There’s the way it ought to be, and there’s the way it is."

In our watchdog world, that describes the good government we’re entitled to in exchange for our hard-earned tax dollars, and the less-than-good government we get from too many public agencies.

One of them is Pace, our suburban bus system.

The Better Government Association recently investigated disturbing allegations of bid rigging and other contracting irregularities at the taxpayer-supported agency. Here’s an excerpt:

Several months after a Pace manager was arrested for allegedly accepting more than $280,000 in kickbacks for helping vendors secure contracts at the suburban bus agency, a former high-ranking Pace employee has filed a lawsuit claiming even more widespread procurement problems exist there.

Susan Jung Lundy, who was previously a manager of the purchasing department at Pace, said she was demoted and then fired in 2014 in retaliation for blowing the whistle on violations of competitive bidding rules, the July complaint says.

While still working at Pace, Lundy reported to the agency’s ethics officer that Pace Executive Director Thomas J. Ross and other employees shared "confidential information about the bidding process with board members" while procurement decisions were still pending, according to the lawsuit.

We don’t know if the allegations are true, but we’re painfully aware of Pace’s well documented arrogance and hostility toward public transparency.

So perhaps it’s time to re-ask an old question: Should Pace be eliminated as a stand-alone agency?

Illinois, as we’ve pointed out frequently in the BGA’s "smart streamlining" campaign, has too many government entities that do next to nothing, or things other agencies could easily absorb, so why not consider saving millions in overhead by combining Pace and Metra into one transit operation that provides bus and rail service in the suburbs, like CTA does in the city?

Metra’s hardly a model of good government—it’s had its share of big scandals—but Pace is a slacker, and a costly one: The agency recently spent $500,000 on legal fees, presumably related to the recent contracting scandal.

I say "presumably" because Pace won’t tell us what the bill covers, or release their internal report on the contracting mess, or answer any serious questions.

That’s nothing new—we had to sue the agency for refusing to turn over payroll records in a usable format, and violating state law by not supplying data on bus crashes, and alcohol and drug testing of bus drivers.

Taxpayers and watchdogs need basic information like that to understand how Pace is operating, but our inquiries are often met with hostility from its top bureaucrats, including one who defied credulity by claiming his job is to protect Pace’s image.

Really? We thought public employees were supposed to serve the public.

That reminds us of a story we did a couple of years ago about Pace staffers goofing off on the Internet when they should have been working.

Sadly, that’s the way it is, not the way it ought to be, so maybe it’s time for the Regional Transportation Agency—which oversees Pace, Metra and the CTA— to reconsider Pace’s future.

Perhaps they’ll decide to fill Pace buses with its employees and drive them to a new home at Metra headquarters.

Ride on!

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.


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