The Illinois General Assembly’s action, and inaction, resembles a grab bag gift, or the prize at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box — you never know what you’re going to get or whether you’ll like it.
So it’s no surprise that when the curtain came down on the spring session in Springfield last month, the audience was left with a few satisfied smiles, a few disappointed frowns, and one gasp of exasperation.
Lawmakers passed a budget, but refused to extend the temporary income tax or cut spending, so the budget’s “balanced” with smoke and mirrors, and there’s not enough revenue to fund existing programs or pay the bills.
They approved a measure that lets Chicago start tackling its pension crisis, but stiffed a similar request from Cook County.
And high-stakes issues, including gaming expansion and the ultimate fate of the aforementioned income tax, remain on hold until after the November election.
As for the efficiency, transparency and accountability proposals watchdogs like the Better Government Association weighed in on, it’s also a mixed bag.
Here’s a box score, beginning with the “win” column:
- Rep. Jack Franks and Sen. Daniel Biss passed a “smart streamlining” bill that should eliminate a few of Illinois’ nearly 7,000 units of government and save tax dollars. The legislation, recommended by Franks’ Local Government Consolidation Commission and backed by the BGA, facilitates the consolidation or dissolution of small, obscure taxing bodies.
It’s a little victory in the epic battle against bureaucratic bloat.
- Sen. Kwame Raoul and Rep. Scott Drury sponsored legislation that reforms the way police conduct suspect lineups. The goal is to prevent wrongful convictions, the shameful miscarriages of justice that ruin lives and waste tax dollars.
Better lineup procedures are the latest in a series of reforms prompted by a 2011 investigation by the BGA and the Center on Wrongful Convictions.
- The General Assembly adopted a pair of measures that should help uncover potential conflicts of interest involving state grant recipients and charter school operators.
The goal of the bills’ backers, Sens. Dan Kotowski and Jacqueline Collins, is to prevent the kind of troubling conflicts that permeated the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative’s anti-violence grants, and the United Neighborhood Organization’s (UNO’s) charter school construction contracts.
- The Legislature also approved a same-day voter registration pilot program for the Nov. 4 election. Reform groups view same-day registration as a key to boosting election-day turnout, which was an abysmal 16 percent for the March primary.
That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that several worthy streamlining initiatives stalled in Springfield:
- The one with the greatest potential impact on the government “obesity epidemic” would have empowered every county board in Illinois to consolidate some of its units of government — that’s a game-changing power only Du Page currently has;
- Another would have allowed voters in River Forest Township to fold their township into the village of River Forest;
- And a third would have permitted townships with fewer than 15 miles of roads to eliminate their highway commissioner.
All three measures were blocked by intense pushback from local government officials, but they’ll be on our legislative agenda again next year.
And last, but not least, the really bad news: On the all-important issue of government transparency, lawmakers took a giant step backwards with uncharacteristic speed.
A weakening of our most valuable transparency tool, the Freedom of Information Act, breezed through both chambers in a single week in May.
Motivated by suburban government complaints about the strain of responding to comprehensive FOIA requests, lawmakers passed HB3796, which gives municipalities additional time to respond to so-called “voluminous” requests from citizens, and lets them charge the FOIA filers up to $100.
The extra time’s not a deal-breaker, but the fees are arbitrary and unreasonably high, which seriously undermines the ability of regular citizens to access the public information they’re entitled to.
As a result, the BGA is urging Gov. Pat Quinn to veto the bill when it reaches his desk.
That’s our 2014 legislative wrap-up — a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly.
Kind of like the gifts in a grab bag, or the prizes at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at email@example.com or 312-386-9097.