By Emily Miller
The Illinois General Assembly just barreled through another “committee deadline week” in Springfield.
While that event means little to many everyday people, for political insiders it involves an important flurry of activity surrounding last minute attempts to move proposed legislation through committees–in hopes of providing them a fighting chance of getting a full hearing in the General Assembly before it adjourns by late May.
This year, in addition to monitoring the biggest “hot button” policy issues raging in Illinois — including public pension reform and gaming expansion — the Better Government Association crafted a comprehensive legislative agenda that, in many instances, aims to correct inequities and serious problems uncovered by recent BGA investigations.
These issues reflect the BGA mission of not only exposing government problems but also proposing ways to remedy them.
Here is a rundown of some of those BGA policy initiatives:
- The BGA and Center on Wrongful Convictions, based at Northwestern University School of Law, in June 2011 looked at the high cost of wrongful convictions. Aside from documenting the untold human toll, the probe found government payouts of $214 million over 35 years. This session, the BGA is supporting two wrongful conviction reforms: HB2945, which reduces false confessions by providing that all major felony interrogations and confessions are electronically recorded and HB2960, which reduces erroneous eyewitness identification by requiring more training for lineup administrators and bolstering instructions given to eyewitnesses before lineups.
- In November 2011, the BGA investigated why townships, a form of local government spawned during the late 1800s, don’t add up. The investigation found many townships in Northern Illinois provide costly and redundant services (already provided by the private sector or other government agencies) yet continue to maintain high cash reserves and serve as little-known landing pads for political operatives, cronies and their family members. In response, the BGA is supporting SB1585, Senate Amendment 1, which streamlines local government. Currently, Illinois law bars local communities from choosing whether their township government, an often antiquated and redundant taxing body, continues to provide a needed service. This bill gives Illinois residents living in coterminous townships, like suburban Evanston, the ability to choose for themselves whether to officially merge their township and city governments.
- The BGA is focusing on bills that attack conflict of interest and back our core belief that the public has a right to greater openness and candor from government officials. Especially important is transparency in elected officials’ financial interests, which is vital for exposure of potential conflict of interests. For over 40 years, Illinois has required elected officials and high-ranking government employees to file a statement of economic interests. However, the current form is confusing and yields an ineffectual “not applicable” in response to many questions. The BGA is backing SB1361, which streamlines this form by clarifying what is being asked and requires officials to report more information, increasing the likelihood of exposing any conflicts of interests.
Finally, the BGA consistently supports bills that strengthen the state’s Freedom of Information Act and this session is no exception.
SB1514 Senate Amendment 1 closes a loophole in the Freedom of Information Act that allows government bodies who wrongfully deny access to public documents the ability to unfairly draw out court battles at the expense of the requester.
Throughout the legislative season, the BGA will continue to advocate for reforms that will not only create a more just and transparent government, but also save taxpayers money and advance the public’s right to have honest, fair and efficient government.
Policy Associate Caitlin Kearney contributed to this article.